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Why She Loves Playing a Hateful Character in 'The Ferryman'

By: Allison Considine
Date: May 03, 2019

Ann McDonough returns to Broadway after a 16-year absence as staunch Irish republican Aunt Pat

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When Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman opened on Broadway last fall, Ann McDonough's friends immediately started calling her. "They bullied me, saying, 'You have to call your agent!'" the actress recalls. They insisted she would be amazing as Aunt Patricia Carney, a bitter, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking spinster who lectures anyone within earshot about the bloody history of her beloved Ireland. McDonough agreed. "Aunt Pat is basically my father, which is terrifying," she says. "She has been sitting farting in that chair for 30 years, and she can't quite do anything. She's really a chicken. And that was my father -- all sound and fury and nothing else. My father called it 'Irish paralysis.'"

Of course Dearbhla Molloy, who originated the role in the London production, was scheduled to stay with show until its January closing. But when it extended through July due to rave reviews and strong ticket sales, McDonough knew she had a shot. On February 19, she joined the Tony-nominated play as Aunt Pat alongside a new cast led by Brian d'Arcy James as the patriarch of the Carneys, a sprawling Irish clan grappling with The Troubles in 1981.

McDonough, 70, worked steadily on Broadway and off in the' 70s and '80s before slowing down to have a family. (Her husband is actor Jack Gilpin and one of their children, Betty Gilpin, stars on Netflix's GLOW.) The Ferryman marks her return to Broadway after a 16-year absence, and it's quite the epic. The three-hour production features 22 characters (including a baby), live rabbits and a goose, and intense emotions as the Carneys prepare for the annual harvest at their bucolic Armagh County farm in Northern Ireland. But even though it's supposed to be a time of celebration, Aunt Pat never lets them forget how their homeland is still suffering. In addition to her impassioned, profanity-laden reminiscences, she keeps listening to radio reports about the Irish republican prisoners on hunger strike in protest of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies.

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"The Carneys are living in a fairy-tale world," explains McDonough. "These boys are dying, and that's the story I don't want them to overlook. That's why Aunt Pat's such a bummer!" Her surly attitude earns her the name "old bitch" among her grandnieces. "It's kind of fun to be hateful," McDonough concedes with a laugh.

To prepare for the role, McDonough did some ancestral research and even sent her family tree to a genealogist. She's 100% Irish, yet her Western Irish relatives never spoke of Northern Ireland's ethno-nationalist conflict. So she's been reading books and just completed a jigsaw puzzle outlining Irish history. Learning more about The Troubles has been "completely hair-raising," she says, "but I love what all of this has opened up for me."

As much as McDonough is enjoying the role, she's glad to have plenty of downtime during the three-act play so she gets breaks from all the ranting. During these stretches, she hangs out with the cast's understudies in the green room where there's always a "wild game" of Bananagrams in session. "The kids might drift in, and then we see if there are any birthdays to look forward to," she says. "With the cast, crew and 10 understudies, there's usually at least one each week and we have a fabulous cake." There's also a whiskey bar in the men's dressing room and the women indulge in pink champagne on Saturdays.

In fact, to hear her tell it, the theatrical Ferryman family sounds as close and quirky as the Carneys -- just without all the political strife and romantic intrigue. "Fred [Applegate], Fionnula [Flanagan] and I are like the old elephants at the circus, though we subscribe to a certain amount of decorum," McDonough says. "I started a special skills challenge. Matilda [Lawler], who plays the youngest little girl, and I can put our fists in our mouths, Terry [King] can juggle, and Emily [Bergl] has a wild war cry. It's a lovely group of people."

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TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Ferryman. Go here to browse our current offers.

Allison Considine is a staff writer at American Theatre magazine. Follow her at @theatric_ally. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Ann McDonough in The Ferryman. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Allison Considine is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. Follow her at @theatric_ally. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.