You know Catherine Byrne from Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa,” which had an acclaimed and healthy Broadway run, and “Wonderful Tennessee,” which had a not-so-acclaimed and shockingly brief Broadway run. Now this radiant actress is rehearsing her fifth Friel play, as the title character in “Molly Sweeney,” which begins performances Dec. 26 under the playwright’s direction at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theater. Her costars are Jason Robards and Alfred Molina.
Molly is a 41-year-old woman who regains her sight after a lifetime of blindness; the play is a series of 38 monologues in which she, her husband and her doctor deal with the wrenching impact of that change. Byrne, who is the same age as Molly, opened the play at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in the summer of 1994 and later traveled with it to the Almeida, in London. But now she’s been away from the role – and its 12 monologues – for a year, doing a sitcom with Niall Buggy called “Upwardly Mobile.”
“I’m always playing women pulling their hair out and slitting their wrists,” she said, so this was a decided change.
“I’m dying to get onstage,” she said during a recent rehearsal break. “I’m dying to get in front of an audience. We’ve just got to go out and give them the play.”
Byrne’s husband, John, also an actor, and their two sons will be visiting over Christmas – something, she recalled with some wonderment, not to say bitterness, that her own family never did when her father was away working. When she was only 6, actor Edward Byrnes spent a year and a month in Tahiti, filming “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Marlon Brando.
“My mother was broken-hearted,” Byrne said. When he died, the family discovered a diary he’d kept during that long absence. On the pretext of respecting his privacy – but doubtless fearing what might be revealed in those pages – her mother forbade anyone to read it. After she died, the diary was opened.
“And all he wrote about was how much he missed her!” Catherine Byrne says, her brown eyes suddenly wide and twinkling. “She never knew! Can you imagine that?”