Gunner’s last stand

THERE are few actors in contemporary American theatre as well regarded as John Mahoney.

Gunner’s last stand

He is best known as Kelsey Grammer’s father, the retired detective Marty Crane, in the long-running TV series, Frasier.

Mahoney returns to the Galway Arts Festival, of which he is an honorary patron, for the fifth time this week. He is also appearing in the European premiere of Bruce Graham’s play The Outgoing Tide. Graham was approached to write the play with Mahoney in mind.

Mahoney won a Tony award for his part in The House of Blue Leaves in 1986, a play that also featured Ben Stiller in his stage debut. Mahoney has been a member of the famous Chicagoan Steppenwolf theatre company since 1979, which also launched the careers of other American acting luminaries, such as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and Laurie Metcalf, and of David Mamet, the screenwriter/director and Glengarry Glen Ross playwright.

“I haven’t seen David for a long time,” Mahoney says of Mamet. “When I did Romance, at the Almeida in London a few years ago, which was the British premiere of his play, I found out that he requested me to do it. I ran into him at an airport after that, and I thanked him and he just laughed. Most of his stuff gets done in New York and I don’t particularly want to go to New York.

“They wanted to move The Outgoing Tide to New York, off-Broadway, and I just wasn’t interested. I said: ‘Very interested in doing it in Galway’.”

The Outgoing Tide is a three-hander set on an autumn night at a lakeside cottage on Chesapeake Bay. Gunner, a guy in his early 70s who ran a small trucking company, and his wife, Peg, have retreated there after a life in Philadelphia.

Gunner’s health is “seriously failing”, as Mahoney says — he’s wrestling with dementia, with the fear that he’ll be carted off on the “Looneyville Trolley”.

Railing against notions that he might end up in assisted-living accommodation, Gunner wants to put a radical plan in place to look after his family financially.

The play’s conclusion, which unfurls a thread loosely pulled at earlier in the play, will leave audiences floored.

Gunner is hardy, a man’s man, thoroughly at ease in “the world’s most comfortable fishing clothes”. He’s also got a lip. He’s a charmer. His wisecracks keep everyone laughing. Gunner’s ill-health is cause for reckonings, chief among them the angst that he might have been too hard on Jack, his sensitive, care-worn son, the only child from his marriage, who is in the middle of a divorce when he comes to visit.

“You have to feel sorry for Jack,” says Mahoney. “It’s just not in the nature of the father to apologise, certainly to his son. There’s a scene where he’s basically begging for forgiveness. He’s so full of such deep, horrible remorse at the way he treated his son, making fun of his choice of profession, basically telling him he was gay when he’s not. As his wife says to Jack, ‘It hurt, didn’t it? I tried to get him to stop but he just thought it was fun. He thought it was good for you’.

“In the process, I destroy ‘my son’, basically. I’m probably responsible for his failing marriage, for not actually doing what he wanted to do in life, because it didn’t please me, so we have a lot of issues to deal with before I kick the bucket.”

The entrails of Gunner’s 51-year marriage are also picked over — the casual cruelties, the resentments, the compromises — or “the concessions,” as they’re referred to. Tony-award-winner Rondi Reed, who will deliver a guest lecture alongside Mahoney during the Galway festival, plays Peg.

Mahoney and Reed have soldiered together on stage for 30 years.

“Rondi always says that we’ve been married on stage a lot longer than she ever was in real life. Rondi and I have been ‘husband and wife’ in, God, everything — from Pinter to Shaw and now we’re at it again. We both came into Steppenwolf at the same time. She’d been to school with all those guys. I hadn’t. We made our debuts in the same play with Steppenwolf and have worked together constantly ever since,” Mahoney says.

Mahoney was born in 1940. His great-grandfather, Michael O’Mahoney, was from Cork City. His grandfather moved to England. Mahoney grew up in Manchester, having sat out the Second World War as an infant in Blackpool.

An older sister sponsored his emigration visa to the United States, where, after years of teaching English literature in university and editing a medical journal, he drifted into full-time acting in his 30s.

Mahoney is wedded to Chicago and has fond memories of its most cherished adopted citizen, the oral historian and giant of radio, Studs Terkel, who died in 2008. They were good friends and did a baseball movie together, Eight Men Out, about the Chicago Black Sox scandal.

“I was on his show in Chicago many times,” he says. “It was a wonderful talk show. I remember the last time I did it, I was doing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Goodman Theatre. I was talking about the play and then Studs went, ‘OK, can we do a scene now?’. ‘What do you mean a scene? ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you’re doing Uncle Vanya, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. ‘Well, I want to do a scene from Uncle Vanya’. I said, ‘OK, fine’, and we did a scene. He was such a ham’.”

* The Outgoing Tide is at Town Hall Theatre, Galway, 8pm, Tuesday, Jul 17 — Saturday, Jul 21. John Mahoney and Rondi Reed discuss their careers in a talk at Hotel Meyrick, Galway, 1pm, Thursday, Jul 19 (tickets are free). For further information, visit: www.galwayartsfestival.com

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