Anita Reeves is relishing her new role as a worker in a nursing home, writes Colette Sheridan.
ACTRESSES of a certain age often complain about the lack of decent roles for them. However, Anita Reeves, who stars in These Halcyon Days at Cork’s Everyman Theatre (Jul 23-27), is encouraged by the emergence of new female writers in recent times.
She cites Nancy Harris, Carmel Winters, Amy Conroy and Stefanie Preissner. And there’s Deirdre Kinahan, author of These Halcyon Days, whose plays Bogboy and Moment were picked up by theatres in the UK and the US.
These Halcyon Days, set in a nursing home, has toured Ireland and was staged in the Irish Arts Centre in New York a couple of months ago. The play was first performed at the Dublin Theatre Festival last year.
These Halcyon Days is inspired by Kinahan’s uncle. Stephan Brennan plays Seán, a former actor, whose solitary life in the nursing home’s conservatory is interrupted by the feisty Patricia, a retired school principal. Reeves, aged 65, is relishing the role.
“Deirdre says the Patricia character is based on people from her own mother’s generation, strong women who don’t take things lying down,” explains Reeves. “Patricia barges into Seán’s life. She’s angry at finding herself in the nursing home. She’s bossy and intolerant at the beginning of the play. But she realises that she can chat to Seán about books and plays. It’s like a meeting of soul mates. The characters learn from each other. Patricia undergoes a complete change, becoming more accepting and tolerant. Seán teaches her that while a person is alive, there’s always the hope of a relationship.”
Reeves admits that audiences can initially be a little resistant towards the play, given that it features an aging man in a wheelchair. “People wonder if they should be laughing. But they gradually realise that they can. As an actor, it’s a great experience to feel the audience getting to know the characters and laughing in the right places.
“Towards the end of the play, the audience loves the characters so much that they’ll go anywhere with them. Seán and Patricia even have a little dance together and they sing. They knock craic out of each other. Seán can make her laugh. He has early onset dementia but this brings out the best in Patricia.”
The subject matter can be uncomfortable for some people, says Reeves. “The play delves into something that isn’t normally explored on the stage. But it’s done in such a positive way that I think people feel better about themselves coming out of the play.”
Reeves says that people have a blind spot when it comes to identifying with the characters. “There’s a tendency to see other people in the two characters rather than the audience seeing itself. Often people say the characters reminded them of their mother or grandfather.”
Without giving away too much of the play, Patricia becomes extremely annoyed at Seán, who takes his time in revealing something crucial about him.
Reeves is in the lucky position of being able to be selective about the roles she takes on. Her husband, Julian Erskine, is the executive producer of Riverdance. (Their son, Danny, is the stage manager of the touring show.) “I’m not out looking for work. I’ve reached that stage in my career where I don’t have to work all the time and I’m grateful for that. People look for me to do roles, not necessarily big roles, but roles I feel I have an affinity with.”
Prior to These Halcyon Days, Reeves played an older woman in Elaine Murphy’s Little Gem. A singer as well as an actress, she was in Sweeney Todd at the Gate Theatre four years ago. She also has done some film and TV work.
“Theatre is my thing. I’m not really comfortable with the medium of film,” she admits. “I’ve just done little parts that I knew I’d be OK in and would feel comfortable with the director. I’m not a very career-oriented person. I love singing but, unfortunately, I had to turn down a role in a musical recently as I’m off on a month’s holiday after this play.”
Reeves wanted to be an actress from an early age, “even before I knew it was a job you could do. My parents brought us to see plays. Maureen Potter would have been a huge influence on me and we became really good friends. One year, she got sick and I was asked to take over from her in a pantomime in the Gaiety. I started off in pantomime”.
After every play, Reeves feels like announcing that she is retiring. “But then I’m asked to read a script and something in it just attracts me. I feel I can’t say no to a good play.”
Reeves has turned down Shakespearean roles several times. “I was afraid of Shakespeare. I thought I wasn’t that kind of actress although I don’t quite know what that means. But eventually, a few years ago, in the Abbey, I played the nurse in Romeo and Juliet and I absolutely loved it. My daughter Gemma was playing Juliet.”
While Reeves found her niche in acting, her daughter felt that she was missing something. A couple of years ago, she gave up acting and is now doing a degree in psychology. While Reeves encouraged Gemma’s acting career, she points out that being an actor is vocational. “You do it because you have to and because there’s nothing else you want to do,” she says.
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