The Irish Repertory Theater: A Class Act


Let us now praise the Irish Repertory Theater, New York, and congratulate founders Charlotte Moore, Artistic Director, and Ciarán O’Reilly, Producing Director, as they receive the 2011 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish American Writers and Artists. The award is given annually to “an Irish American writer or artist who has created a body of work that places them among the great artists and entertainers of all time.” Charlotte and Ciarán join two previous honorees, acclaimed author William Kennedy and iconic actor Brian Dennehy.

Since September 1988, when the Irish Rep opened with The Plough and the Stars, so many of the company’s 150 productions have been singled out for notable awards and nominations that merely listing them all would take up the rest of this article. Theirs is a record of, to quote a Drama Desk Award, “Excellence in Presenting Distinguished Irish Drama.” Rave reviews in the New York Times and The New Yorker confirm this. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout wrote that the Irish Repertory Theater is “one of the finest theater companies in America,” and went on to say that “the quality of the company’s work is enhanced by the deep cultural authenticity in its productions. In the broadest possible sense the Irish Rep gets the accents right.”

They get it right. The stated mission of the theater is “to bring works by Irish and Irish American masters and contemporary playwrights to American audiences,” and to do this “with a native understanding.” Their success in this mission has led playwright Brian Friel to say of the Rep, “Because the best theater involves an experience of the spirit, the ground they occupy has now been made sacred by them. They have made the space hallowed.”

Since 1988, in production after production, Charlotte and Ciarán have gathered audiences around the hearth at 132 West 22nd Street to hear the seanachie entone Fádo and enter the sacred space of connection.

Through all the years of oppression and exile we Irish refused to relinquish our songs and stories. The Irish Rep honors that patrimony and its founders embody it. Charlotte Moore’s Kennedy ancestors left Wexford in the mid-19th century. “Poor as snakes,” Charlotte says. “They mined coal and homesteaded in Southern Illinois until my grandfather somehow managed to put together enough money to buy a mine and then World War II happened and we became well-off.”

Charlotte inherited the storytelling instinct. Her acting ability impressed college teacher Nelson McGill who urged her to go to New York. She was chosen by legendary actor/director Ellis Rabb to become a member of his Association of Producing Artists which included such acting greats as Nancy Marchand, Paul Sparer and Rosemary Harris. Almost 30 years later Marchand would star as Lady Bracknell in the Rep’s 1996 production of The Importance of Being Earnest with Tony Walton, the Tony award-winning set and costume designer, making his directorial debut.

Bringing life-long friends who also happen to be theater greats into the Irish Rep family is a speciality of Charlotte’s. When she read for Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim and was cast in A Little Night Music, “I didn’t even know who they were,” Charlotte says. But even when her fear of singing in front of an audience made playing a role in the musical impossible, Prince remembered her and a year later invited Charlotte to be a member of the repertory company he was forming. “For three or four years I played leads in classic plays directed by Hal Prince. The first time I stepped on the Broadway stage he was directing. Amazing. I was so lucky.”

Prince would become a consistent supporter of the Irish Rep, and in 1992 adapted a section of Sean O’Casey’s autobiography into The Grandchild of Kings, a towering theater piece which he also directed. The two dozen members of the Irish Repertory Theater Company were “the best ensemble I ever worked with,” he said.

A Theater is Born

It was when Charlotte met County Cavan native Ciarán O’Reilly that the dream of telling the story of the Irish and Irish-American experience through theater was born. “In 1980 we were appearing together in Hugh Leonard’s Summer directed by Brian Murray who is a very important member of our company now,” Ciarán says.

“I had just come to the U.S. from Dublin where I’d spent a year at the Abbey Theatre, playing for some reason, characters who spoke in Irish. I’d also been acting at the Focus Theater there. I began getting roles in New York at the Irish Arts Center and other theaters when Brian cast me,” he recalls. “Charlotte and I talked about doing Irish plays, but it wasn’t until 1988 that I produced The Plough and the Stars with Charlotte directing.” It would be their first production of many.