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One Woman Show

Joan McCready Excels in This Intimate One-Act

PAY YOUR YEATS: Joan McCready gets close with Lady Gregory.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/8/2006

Coole Lady

By Sam McCready

At the Performance Workshop Theatre through Feb. 26

The Performance Workshop Theatre is tucked in a tiny basement in Federal Hill; the 24 seats take up less space than the bedroom-sized stage. As such, it’s the perfect space for the one-woman one-act play “Coole Lady.”

The entire show consists of the 79-year-old Irish literary legend Lady Augusta Gregory (Joan McCready) reminiscing about her life as she hobbles about on her cane in the parlor of her home, Coole Park, in 1931. It’s a static, talky piece that wouldn’t work nearly as well if we didn’t feel as if we were sitting in the parlor with Lady Gregory. But at the Performance Workshop Theatre, we feel close enough that we might reach out and catch the old woman if she were to fall, close enough to get absorbed in every anecdote she shares.

This 70-minute monologue was written by the show’s director, Sam McCready, and is performed by his wife. With her salt-and-pepper hair, trailing black veil, and long, draped black dress, she resembles photos of Lady Gregory. With the audience no further away than the edge of her parlor’s Oriental rug, the actress speaks conversationally and relies on the smallest of gestures. She not only survives the close inspection of the intimate surroundings, she thrives.

Even before the show begins, a slide show hints at Lady Gregory’s crucial role in early-20th-century Irish culture. There’s a photo taken by George Bernard Shaw of William Butler Yeats in the gardens at Coole Park. There’s a cartoon of Yeats defending John Millington Synge’s play The Playboy of the Western World before an angry crowd at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the theater that Yeats and Lady Gregory co-founded in 1904. The Abbey premiered many plays by Yeats, Synge, Sean O’Casey, A.E., Padraic Collum, and Lady Gregory herself.

Now it’s 1931, and Lady Gregory knows she hasn’t long to live. It’s time to share the highlights of her long life: the unhappy childhood where she was little more than a servant girl for her parents and brothers, the unexpected romance where she married the older Anglo-Irish aristocrat Sir William Gregory, her impulsive affairs, her blossoming as a widow into a friend and patroness to Ireland’s young writers, the tragic deaths of her nephew and son, her passion for the Irish Republican cause, the establishment of the Abbey, her breast-cancer surgery, and so on.

It was a full life, but the main reason we remember it today is for her special relationship with Yeats. When they first met in 1895, he was a relatively obscure 30-year-old poet, but the 43-year-old widow recognized his talent and invited him to spend a summer at Coole Park. He eventually spent 20 summers there, and his hostess would force him to sit down at a desk every morning and write the poems and plays that made him famous. There’s a glow in Joan McCready’s face when she recounts those summers and an angry stamp of her cane when she recalls the gossip about them.

In fact, the best moments of the show come when the matronly glow vanishes from the actress’ face and a flash of anger or a stab of pain is revealed. She appears to forget herself when she sneers at a visiting writer’s wife or recalls her son’s death in World War I. She always recovers quickly and wills herself to reassume the cheerful optimism that has carried her through her long life. But it’s in those sudden losses of composure and those determined resumptions of control that you really glimpse the inner Lady Gregory.

Sam McCready taught theater for many years at UMBC, and Joan McCready taught at the Park School. The couple still keeps a house in Dickeyville, though they spend much of the year in Belfast, Ireland, where they were founding members of the Lyric Theatre. “Coole Lady” has been published as a book in Belfast and is about to have its third tour of Ireland. But it’s hard to imagine it having a more congenial home than the Performance Workshop Theatre’s cozy cellar.

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