February 16, 1998
Volume 50, No. 21
McDonough brings imposing presence to Theater Emory
Tim McDonough frowns at the pages in front of him. He stands, head hung between his shoulders, dressed in jeans and loose knit sweater, muttering lines to himself. His wife, Janice Akers, gives direction to a young actor who looks every bit his part of an 18-year-old police recruit next to McDonough's grizzled visage and its dark, cavernous eyes.
The three are working in Theatre Gael's rehearsal space, standing inside an imaginary stage marked off with masking tape. McDonough's thick eyebrows bob up and down with each throaty whisper of his lines. Akers plays a CD of Irish music, bold horns and big drums, and McDonough's voice builds to a low roar as he launches into a monologue. Rehearsal begins.
McDonough is playing Thomas Dunne, the title character in Sebastian Barry's The Steward of Christendom, in Theatre Gael's production opening Feb. 20 at the 14th Street Playhouse. An acting teacher in Emory's theater studies department, McDonough is on sabbatical this semester, and Thomas Dunne is his research.
"This is what I'm refurbishing myself with, what I'll learn from and bring back to my teaching," McDonough said. "This is also something I can contribute to the theater community here, both to [Theatre Gael] and to audiences, helping to make this particular play happen."
In fact, how this particular play happened is a story unto itself. After hearing from theater studies' Alice Benston that the title role was perfect for him, McDonough got around to reading Steward last spring. He didn't know much about Sebastian Barry-whose papers Emory is interested in acquiring for its Irish literature holdings-but McDonough fell in love with the play's language. Moved to bring it to an Atlanta stage, he immediately called Gael Artistic Director John Stephens-who the day before had scheduled Steward for Gael's spring 1998 production. One meeting with Stephens later, McDonough was slated to play Thomas.
It is the latest in a long line of complex, enigmatic characters for one of Atlanta's most celebrated theater actors. Since moving here in 1990, McDonough's performances in such roles as Lear and Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest have nabbed him seven awards for best performance from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Creative Loafing. Add those to a score of other awards from publications, critics' circles and acting associations he received during his many years in Boston theater, and one can understand why Emory hired McDonough as its first full-time acting instructor.
And the respect is mutual. "The situation at Emory is quite extraordinary for a theater artist of my own persuasion for several reasons," McDonough said. "Emory is seriously interested in artists continuing their artistic activities as their research."
McDonough has been doing "research" the past four summers at Oglethorpe University's Georgia Shakespeare Festival, most recently as Caliban in The Tempest. Then last fall he took a turn as Prospero in Theater Emory's Tempest production. Even for such an experienced actor, taking on two roles in the same play in such a short amount of time made for a new perspective.
"That was fascinating," McDonough said. "Hearing lines I used to be inside of and empathetic with-and now hating that character's guts. That was really interesting, to step outside something you had played so recently and just hate the person for the very reasons they're feeling justified."
But McDonough acknowledged he never really felt like he "got inside" Caliban, and over the years that experience of working his way into a character's mind and reliving a life is what tells him his performance is good. Of course, it's one of many gratifying moments for a lifelong theater actor. Though he's been in a handful of television and film productions, the stage is McDonough's home, and his success as an acting teacher has made it financially feasible for him to do the kind of acting he really loves.
"There's something about the immediacy of theater, the contact with the audience, the series of discoveries that can be made," McDonough said. "The special state of entering the performance mentality when you're reliving from the inside what's going on with the story-there's too little of that in the other media. I don't think there would be any of it in a McDonald's commercial.
"There is a kind of ecstasy in going into the performance state. It's the same ecstasy that a shaman experiences when he journeys into the spirit world-an actor steps out of his own life and into the spirit world of a script. It's a very special world, a world in which everything's determined but anything's possible. It's full of paradoxes."
Thomas Dunne in Steward is, to say the least, in a world of his own, and McDonough enjoys the challenge of bringing life to a new character. Gael's production of Steward will mark its Southeastern premiere and one-with the help of Akers' direction-that will take the play to the more frayed edges of reality. The play is set in 1932, and Thomas is living in "an institution for the mentally unbalanced," as McDonough put it.
Through a series of flashbacks, all of which take place in Thomas' private room, he relives a life spent defending what he thought was the best interest of Ireland: keeping the peace for the British crown. Toward the end of his career, Thomas learns the people of Ireland consider him a traitor to his country, and his entire life is thrown into turmoil.
"It's a story of a man who was on the wrong side of history," McDonough said. "It's not just a good play but a progressive play-it's really theatrical. Theater's power is to do what it can uniquely do, and there is something magical here in the tension between the world of Thomas' incarceration and the even stronger reality of his memories. He lives now in more than one world. It's powerful."