Even on Broadway, Faith Can Thrive

McNamara: You're known to be a devout Catholic. How important is your faith to you?

Manahan: My faith has sustained me through all the vicissitudes of my life. I have never done anything but act, and I could not have worked as hard as I did to support myself — and sometimes my family — without my faith.

What drew you to the theater and the sometimes nomadic life of a performer?

I was born to a theatrical family in Waterford, Ireland, and studied with the celebrated Abbey actress, Ria Mooney, founder of the original Gaiety School of Acting. I met Milo O'Shea there who became a life long friend and with whom I later created the BBC series “Me Mammy.”

That was a hilarious series, but even as your career was blossoming in Ireland and producers in London beginning to seek you out. But then the momentum stopped.

I was widowed before the trousseau was fully unpacked. We were on tour in Egypt with Edwards/MacLiammoir productions and my husband, CoIm O'Kelly, contracted polio and died. It was very sudden.

That must have been difficult to cope with.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done or will do in my life. When I returned to Ireland, my mother took me to Tramore, Co. Waterford which is beside the sea and where I spent much of my childhood. My mother would come down every week and we would go down to the sea. She never said a word, all day. We would sit there and watch the sea coming in and going out.

The sound of the sea is very soothing, a panacea for many ills. That was one of the most healing periods in my life. There is something therapeutic about the sea — it evokes a sense of eternity. My mother was the daughter of a sailor — my grandfather was torpedoed by the Germans — and she had this intense love of the sea. She is a very communicative person, and loves to chat, but I got to know the depth of her character through the silences. There's a time in everyone's life when you get to see you parents not as parents, but as people who have coped with life, with their own dreams and what they've put aside for you and my respect for my mother soared at that time. She was a woman of faith and prayer.

How does your relationship with the Lord inform your daily life and outlook?

A very important agent who wanted to manage me said there are people who want to be stars, and others who want to be good actors and communicate with the audience. That interests me. Naturally I like to do good plays and get good reviews —that's part of the territory, but the life outside of the business I'm not interested in and never was — my career has thrived without it and that should be an example that it can.

Life is about people, and I always believe that the Almighty, known among actors as “The Management,” will not ask me if I were a good or bad actress. I think he'll ask me if I got on with people, did I care about them.

I remember being worried about some whoppers I did in my life, and a Dominican priest said, “Will you for goodness sake forget about them — He's forgotten about them years ago! I suddenly had a vision of God saying, “Oh not again, Anna! For goodness sake would somebody shut her up...” I came out of the confessional roaring with laughter — He must have a sense of humor to put up with us....

Your dreams of a family were shattered by your husband's premature death, but you are known for your outstanding maternal roles both on stage and off. How did you become such a natural mother?

A man I met in the audience was praising me highly. I stopped him and said, “...when I meet a woman who has reared a passel of children I say to myself, ‘What have I done to compare with that?’” and he said, “... in the dark, you've reached out and put your arms around us.” There are different ways of being a mother; there are wonderful women who work as nuns, nurses, social workers, and single [women] who look after their families. Raising children is one expression of motherhood; looking after people and caring for them is another. I've looked after an awful lot of people. It is in my nature to do it, so it must [be] part of my mission.

You have been described as a person who raises others up or, as one journalist put it, “Anna asks how you are and waits to hear the answer.” What, in your opinion, inspired that comment?

When I meet someone for the first time I ask them to tell me about themselves. There's a lot of loneliness in big cities — Mother Teresa said she saw more loneliness in the United States than in all the streets of Calcutta... Despite all this richness and consumerism, people aren't connecting....when I see the huge amount of advertising on television I just want to get sick. It's terrible that while there's a starving of the spirit, we're being bombarded with “...buy this gadget, that food.” Yet, if everyone shared there would be no hunger in the world. I just can't believe the slaughter in recent years of children, of families, of refugees. Life has become very cheap and it [stems] from abortion and euthanasia.

Those are astonishing statements of courage. Theater today is intensely conformist in the “politically correct” sense. Aren't you concerned that those statements. Is there a chance you might lose precious opportunities?

I am so pleased to be a member of the Catholic Church. It is one of the few voices in the world that speaks out strongly against abortion and euthanasia. If I wasn't [born] Catholic, I would join the Church because of its stand on these issues alone.

Thank God there are people standing up and being counted. I believe our present Holy Father is terribly unpopular in some quarters because he “won't give in.” But in the name of the Most High what is the Holy Father to do? He's stands by the Gospel and defends the unborn. It's 1999 and they want him to go by the popular trend, but he can't and he won't. History will justify him. He's been so instrumental in bringing Jews and Christians together and the quality and content of his encyclicals are extraordinary. He's a most remarkable Pope and will be remembered as one of the greatest ever.

Have you ever met the Holy Father in person?

I'd love to meet him — but with all the traveling, I've yet to go to Rome.

Many traditional Irish Catholics are still struggling with Vatican II. Were the changes difficult for you?

Vatican II inspired many movements. People came together to pray and [also] all sorts help is being offered now — for example bereavement counseling — that they didn't have when I lost Colin. Cardinal O'Connor has asked the clergy to bring divorced Catholics along, back to the sacraments. He had an article in a New York Catholic paper that was very moving. Of course, he has his critics too, but I'm not interested in them. I draw my own conclusions.

Mag Folan, the character you play in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, is quite fierce, yet you bring so much humanity to the role while at the same time, not afraid of portraying her dark side. Some of the most unpleasant actresses can only play syrupy characters on stage. How does the warm and nurturing Anna Manahan reach in to the tormented soul of Mag Folan and turn her inside out for us?

Yes, she's horrendous! A lot of the characters I play are very srong. Irish actor, Tony Doyle, once remarked that he'd “...never work with that one. She must be a terrible so and so...” “She's not,” the director responded. “She's a lovely woman.” “She can't be,” insisted Tony, “and play those terrible parts so convincingly...”

People like Mag Folan are truly fascinating. Without looking for sympathy, one can show the vulnerability of the character. What fascinates me when I look at or read about someone who's truly evil is that I get a flashback to when they were a baby and wonder, “How did that happen?” There must be some trauma along the road. When I talk about my wonderful parents I think of how lucky I was and my heart bleeds for children raised in uncaring atmospheres to criminality, drug, or sexual abuse.

Ireland has undergone enormous social and economic changes. A substantial number of Irish mothers work outside the home now and there's a strong pro-abortion, anti-family feminist movement over there. Do you have any thoughts on those changes?

I have always [worked] and was on a panel and asked if I agreed with women being mothers and wives and working. I give the answer now that I gave then. It's very hard, as men have always known, to be the breadwinner. If you have to work, whether it be through financial necessity as often it is, or emotional necessity, then I would say that before you marry and have children think about that seriously because, you will be taking on two jobs. If you think you are capable of doing [both] or organizing it, then do it — who am I to say otherwise. I am a working woman. [I have been] all my life.

I think most women are frustrated and torn. Very often a woman when she goes out to work takes on a second job, along with the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. [Then], if she has children she can become a nervous wreck and the family goes on the shoals. The ideal thing is that when a baby is born, it's better to stay home until the child goes to school and [then to start] working during those hours. The most wonderful thing in my childhood was to come home from school and know my mammy was there. It was the first thing we'd do — there were six of us — open the door and call out for her. For too many children nowadays the shopping mall has become the family home.

Speaking of home, you've been touring the world for two years now. Do you ever get homesick?

I long to see my new house in Waterford. But wherever I am, whether it's Ballyjamesduff or Broadway, I give my all and people have been so wonderful in America. New York is a sort of second home for me, I love the diversity, the energy and the Mass is always a “home.” But I do miss my wonderful family and friends in Ireland. God bless them.

Deirdre McNamara writes from New York.

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