It’s been six years since Ronan Noone last unveiled a new, full-length drama in Boston. For admirers of this exceptionally talented playwright, that’s too long.
Now, finally, comes “The Second Girl.’’ Directed by Campbell Scott at Huntington Theatre Company, it’s a stirring work that is markedly different in tone and texture from most of what Noone has written before.
Gone are the sudden eruptions of verbal and physical violence that characterized earlier plays like “The Blowin of Baile Gall’’ and “Little Black Dress.’’ Gone, too, is the blistering topical satire of “The Atheist,’’ in which Scott starred at the Huntington and off-Broadway.
By contrast, “The Second Girl’’ unfolds in a relatively subdued key of mingled hope and melancholy. It was two decades ago that Noone came to America from County Galway, Ireland, and his new play registers as the work of a man who has arrived at middle age and is adding up the gains and losses of his own immigrant’s passage to a new world — and, by extension, that of countless others who have staked it all on the chance to settle in an unknown country.
To explore the implications of that life-changing choice, the Boston-based playwright deploys a structural conceit as smart as it is simple. “The Second Girl’’ takes place during one of the most famous days in all dramatic literature: the wrenching, hour-by-hour march in August 1912 of the tormented Tyrone family toward a final reckoning in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’’
However, the spotlight this time is not on the Tyrones. Instead, Noone zeroes in on 22-year-old Cathleen, a recently arrived Irish immigrant who works as a servant, or “Second Girl,’’ in the Tyrone household, winningly portrayed at the Huntington by MacKenzie Meehan; Bridget, the 32-year-old cook and “First Girl,’’ who immigrated from Ireland a decade earlier and is Cathleen’s aunt, played by Kathleen McElfresh; and Jack, a 40-year-old American chauffeur portrayed by Christopher Donahue.
While this is a notion as old as “Upstairs, Downstairs’’ and as current as “Downton Abbey,’’ Noone is after more than soap opera here. Yes, his play features a will-they-or-won’t-they story line, revolving around Jack’s persistent courtship of the wary Bridget, whom he wants to come away with him to start a new life in San Francisco. Yes, Bridget furtively drinks to cope with the pain of loneliness and separation from a loved one. And yes, young Cathleen is rocked by an out-of-the-blue piece of heartbreaking news.
But with his compassionate but unflinching examination of the choices made and not made by this trio — and of the complicated relationship many of us have with the places we come from, immigrants or not — Noone forces us to think, and think hard, about the meaning of that most charged and multifaceted of all words: home.
Some theatergoers accustomed to the explosive plot twists of Noone’s other plays may chafe at the interiority and relative uneventfulness of “The Second Girl.’’ But I found it very satisfying to watch this master craftsman working in an unaccustomed idiom, patiently building character on a series of small moments, some of them quite beautiful. The emotional power of “The Second Girl’’ derives from Noone’s tight focus on three characters whom we come to care about, each of them approaching a crossroads and asking themselves: Do I dare to take action? Do I dare not to take action?
In Scott, Noone has a partner attuned to such nuances. The director’s hand is sensitive and sure throughout; he trusts not just in the language of Noone’s play but in its silences. There are periods when we in the audience simply watch the women at work in the kitchen — cooking, carrying out trays to the Tyrones, cleaning up. It feels like episodes from real life, a quality augmented by Santo Loquasto’s meticulously detailed set.
The ceaseless labor of Bridget and Cathleen deftly underscores the lurking issue of class. Unlike their employers, the two immigrants don’t have the luxury of despair. At one point Bridget drives home the point with pitiless clarity, referring to the Tyrones as “them fools inside. Doing nothing but talking delusions and wallowing in their uselessness, and no wonder none of them have a job and who would give them one with that pedigree.’’
Cathleen makes an appearance in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ where O’Neill depicted her as stupid, but in “The Second Girl’’ she is anything but. Meehan brings a captivating buoyancy to Cathleen, who is determined to dream big dreams, however misguided or ludicrous they appear to her aunt. Beneath the playful impishness of Meehan’s Cathleen is a spine of steel; there’s no quit in her, and she’s likely to prove equal to any challenges presented by the big and brawling country she finds herself in.
McElfresh’s performance as Bridget is inscribed with a sense not just of the cook’s self-willed restraint but of the doubts churning beneath her surface demeanor of stoic certitude. As the shambling, mustached Jack, Donahue conveys a sense of dogged decency and of the chauffeur’s resolute determination not to be permanently imprisoned by his past mistakes.
The offstage voices of the Tyrones are supplied by Greg Balla and Karen MacDonald (who gave a riveting performance as Mary Tyrone in a production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ at New Repertory Theatre three years ago).
O’Neill famously described “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ as a “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.’’ His play ends in devastation and silence, the four Tyrones swallowed by a darkness they could not transcend. But it’s worth noting, and savoring, the fact that Cathleen and Bridget’s long day’s journey in “The Second Girl’’ ends not at night but with the dawn of another morning.