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Role Playing: Rebecca Finnegan finds lyrical heart of a lonely woman in ‘A Catered Affair’

Submitted by on Mar 21, 2012 – 7:34 pm

Interview: She portrays a middle-aged wife trapped in a loveless marriage in Porchlight’s production of the Harvey Fierstein-John Bucchino musical, at Stage 773 through April 1.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

So perfectly does Rebecca Finnegan blend her painful lyric pauses into the narrative flow of “A Catered Affair,” at Porchlight Music Theater, that you scarcely notice she has ramped up from speech to song. Then the swelling power of that voice grabs you, and you realize you’re watching something special: an accomplished actor who’s also a genuine singer.

“I love, love, love to sing,” declares Finnegan at the top of an interview about how she brings off the emotionally wrenching character of Aggie, the desolate wife and mother at the musical’s center.

“What I strive for is not to stop acting and start singing, but to create seamless transitions,” she says. For the success she’s had making those seams vanish, Finnegan credits director Nick Bowling and music director Doug Peck: “Just to work with the two of them is an absolute treat. Nick is one of the smartest directors I’ve known in my entire career.”

From its opening on Broadway in 2008, “A Catered Affair” – with music and lyrics by John Bucchino  and a book by Harvey Fierstein based on Paddy Chayefsky’s 1955 television play and Gore Vidal’s 1956 screenplay – has endured mixed critical assessment for exactly the quality Finnegan likes so much about it: the tight weave of music and drama. Its fine, subtle score boasts no real show-stopping numbers.

A big plus for this little show, says Finnegan, is the compact space of Chicago’s Stage 773. “The audience has to be right up on top of these people,” she says. “I love the intimacy of that room. I’d forgotten how satisfying that can be.”

Aggie is a middle-aged working-class mom in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood of 1950s Brooklyn. Her home is a modest apartment she shares with husband Tom, part owner of taxi cab; their daughter Janey, whose impending wedding is the affair in question; and Aggie’s gay brother Winston. It is a loveless marriage in a spiritually oppressed household.

“She feels like a failure as mother and woman,” says Finnegan. “Aggie has resigned herself to that. She has given up on hopes and dreams. At that time, a woman’s place was to sacrifice her life for her family. But this is a woman who feels not just unloved, but unworthy of love.”

If the role of Aggie is an emotional grind for the audience, Finnegan – nearly unrecognizable in her wig and makeup — says she bears that skin by sublimating the painful emotion through physical as well as vocal expression.

“I’m a very physical actor, so I try to convey much of what Aggie is feeling through gesture – how she sits, how she pours coffee, how she moves,” she says. “The expression also comes from underneath, in her tone of voice and the tempo and rhythm of her speech. But so much is communicated in everything that’s not said. It’s very satisfying to be able to do that.”

Finnegan says she has played one other character etched with the internal anguish of Aggie – Mama Rose in the musical “Gypsy.”

“Like Mama Rose, she’s doing the best she can,” says the actor. “And she’s doing what she thinks is best. Aggie empties their bank account and spends their life’s savings on her daughter’s wedding. It’s a desperate measure, but she sees it as her last chance before her daughter leaves home to give her something. She’s so emotionally repressed. She isn’t just taking away her husband’s chance to buy the cab – she wants to give away her entire future.”

Yet it isn’t the wedding that lies at the core of “A Catered Affair,” it’s the looming crisis in the old, stagnant marriage of Aggie and Tom (Craig Spidle).

“Their marriage is empty,” says Finnegan. “A lot of what we need to know about that is in the text. She became pregnant before they were married. Her father basically bought Tom by buying him a part ownership in the cab. So now they sort of fumble around each other, and they both suffer the rips and tears that happen emotionally when you’re protecting yourself. And you still end up being injured.

“The various ways Aggie expresses her unhappiness make her a kind of thermometer in the household. Everyone else takes the temperature of emotions by what they see in her. If she’s OK, then everything’s OK.”

The odd man out here is Uncle Winston (Jerry O’Boyle), Maggie’s brother – tacitly gay — and longtime boarder in her household. Odd because he’s the least repressed, and the one person Aggie can turn to. Finnegan says she worked out a backstory for Winston.

“In  Aggie’s big Irish Catholic family, Winston was always different. Aggie and Winston have always had a deep understanding and love of each other. When we were rehearsing, I came up with the idea that when we were kids and someone made fun of Winston, Aggie would beat them up! Winston is Harvey Fierstein writing about himself, a character almost bizarrely open. He’s the release valve in the house, especially for Aggie.”

Ultimately, says Finnegan, “A Catered Affair” is about “everyone in the family. It’s about family dynamics. That’s why it’s such a wonderful small show. Everyone in the audience takes away a different experience from it.”

To a suggestion that it’s also about clashing neuroses, the actor replies: “I think everyone’s behavior is neurotic. That’s what makes people interesting. It’s certainly what makes for interesting characters in a play. Nobody wants to watch a normal person on stage.”

Of all the challenges the role of Aggie has presented, says Finnegan, the greatest from the beginning of rehearsals was to cope with the emotional impact of John Bucchino’s songs without breaking down.

“Finally my director said, ‘You can’t cry in every song.’ I would even cry when other people were singing. But I did get that under control. Actually, there are still moments when I can’t help it.”

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Photo captions and credits. Home page and top: Rebecca Finnegan. Upper left: Rebecca Finnegan as Aggie. Upper right: Jerry O’Boyle as Uncle Winston and Rebecca Finnegan as Aggie. Below: Aggie (Rebecca Finnegan) brightens as she and Janey (Kelly Davis Wilson) plan their catered affair.  (Production photos by Brandon Dahlquist)

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