The Second Girl wonderfully refracts remnants of “old world” social hierarchical values through the lives of two Irish immigrant women working in the kitchen of a New England summer home. The characters grapple with life transitioning from the old country, fitting in how they can, making do, going through their routines, and becoming part of the American melting pot so slowly, almost imperceptibly that they don’t even see it coming.
As Bridget, the remarkable Jessica Wortham, bustles about the fully stocked kitchen in her apron and sensible shoes, relaying volumes about her heart and life in her manners and concentrated busyness without saying a word, unassuming in her approach to her multiple tasks. Wortham is astonishing with a gorgeous Irish lilt perfect in pitch, tone, and articulation (kudos to dialect and coach Kirsten Trump), with movements to match. She cocks up her head in thought and tosses a towel over her shoulder like she’s been doing it all her life. As Bridget whips up eggs, cuts cucumbers and spreads them out in perfect display, she skillfully distinguishes between ritual and mechanical, all accomplished with the flourish of a suspended life.
Bridget has her own back-story of heartbreak. We get hints of a nearly abandoned, nearly grown son, born in disgrace and unrequited love back home. The pangs of guilt over decisions made years ago and her sense of worthlessness add to her loneliness and liquor indulgence. She assuages her pangs of miserable self-doubt with a periodic swig of an ever present bottle and a multitude of kitchen duties, as if flying hands will help brush away the thoughts of feeling homely and alone.
When she collapses on a chair, her whole body gives in, but only for a brief pause before she jumps up to handle duties of the unseen family in the parlor off stage right who must be appeased. Bridget masters life’s day to day routine and is too busy dulling her pain to look up and see there might be other options. Living life tightly coiled with disappointment laced with bits of shame, she approaches each day with acceptance, expecting nothing more, just more of the same.
Ted Koch as Jack the American born chauffeur is also a measured marvel of intention, saying as little as needed, serving as a sounding board for the kitchen workers. He is attentive to Bridget and lets her know that he cares for her enough to start their lives together as a couple, if she would stop long enough to even consider the possibility. But Bridget is so oblivious to any prospect of happiness that she opts to ferociously cut up vegetables for stew instead.
Finally, rounding out the ensemble is vibrant young Cathryn Wake as Cathleen, the most recent on the wave over from the homeland, put under Bridget’s watchful eye as a stand-in guardian. Cathleen is the named “second girl” – the subservient post of the kitchen staff who, with grit, determination and hard work, has the chance to rise up the ladder to head cook or beyond. Cathleen stomps around seeming larger than her petite frame with keen eyes that blaze with bottled up excitement. She’ll even call out playfully when exiting with platters held high to serve unseen families in the parlor. Cathleen is poised to grab opportunity with gusto, supported by loving relatives back home, and just an arm’s length from Bridget’s watchful eye, who is attentive to her every move.
The Second Girl
closes July 31, 2016
Details and tickets
The two read letters to each other and share what’s going on in the lives of the employer families, while hinting at their own. While the stories are lyrical and delivered with touching grace and humor, their sadness is sometimes so strong it’s almost palpable. And they find a way to accept hardship as if doom were a long lost friend. Jack has witnessed Bridgett at her lowest, covers her missteps whenever he can and watches in bewilderment as she opts to embrace solitude instead of accept his affection and finally bursts out in frustration—”what kind of species are you people?!”
Cathleen has hung her hat on the prospect of a love waiting for her back in the homeland. She feels she can get through any and everything knowing her destiny is assured of being a wife and mother when she returns. When a pivotal letter arrives that changes everything, all of the carefully orchestrated rhythms come to a standstill—the tension is so tight we can hardly move or breathe as everyone comes to grip with this new reality, all while the oblivious employer family chatters off-stage and must be attended to.
Solid direction by Ed Herendeen assures unflappable intention with each move, phrase, and expression in this dramatic turn and ultimate resolution. He knows the power of seething silence, and the wordless moments of anguish and hurt are razor sharp.
The set (Kris Stone) is stacked with kitchen accessories, clattering pots and plates, a completely working kitchen with sudsy sink and running faucet, coal furnace and top plate hot enough to cook eggs and bacon served to the master family. It’s all quite wondrous, especially considering that the floor covers a wet stage for another play in repertory.
Playwright Ronan Noone beautifully relays the tension of outsiders trying to fit into a new environment, longing desperately for their homeland, but noticing that the yearning dissipates with time. In an interview, he shared how his own visits home to Ireland in the early years started to feel more distant the more he settled into his life in America. Noone adds his intention in writing is “to create something that gives you a feeling, that helps you make sense of the world…”
Second Girl does just that in helping to appreciate and create your own realities and thus discover new possibilities, and maybe fling a towel over your shoulder to help clean up your mess along the way.
The Second Girl by Ronan Noone . Directed by Ed Herendeen . Cast: Jessica Wortham, Ted Koch, Cathryn Wake . Set Design: Kris Stone. Costume Design: Therese Bruck . Lighting Design: Tony Galaska . Original Music and Sound Design: Victoria Deiorio. Dialect and Vocal Coach: Kirsten Trump . Stage Manager—Lori M. Doyle . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.