Friday 23 March 2018

Obituary: Anita Reeves

A versatile actor best remembered as Maggie in Friel's 'Dancing at Lughnasa', writes acclaimed director Joe Dowling

Anita Reeves: Had the ability to show a deft satirical touch
Anita Reeves: Had the ability to show a deft satirical touch

Joe Dowling

The Irish theatre has lost one of its most treasured and versatile performers with the death of Anita Reeves. For almost 50 years, she has been at the centre of her profession and shown a range of talents that made her popular with audiences and critics.

As a director, I have worked with her countless times, starting with Absurd Person Singular at The Gate Theatre in 1975, with a stellar cast including Niall Buggy, Rosaleen Linehan, Donal McCann, Susan Hallinan, and Eddie Byrne.

Anita's range was so wide and all-encompassing. I first saw her in pantomime at The Gas Company Theatre in Dun Laoghaire, where she was a dashing principal boy with a fine pair of legs! In revues like Fergus Linehan's Black Rosie at The Eblana Theatre, she displayed her comic chops and a deft satirical touch. In Sean O'Casey's great Dublin plays, her Ginnie Gogan and her Juno Boyle were quintessential readings of those iconic Dublin characters.

Who can forget her delicious Mrs Lovett in the Gate Theatre production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Or her put-upon grandmother in Elaine Murphy's Little Gem, which played in Dublin, throughout the country, in London, New York and Australia.

Perhaps, her greatest triumph was her award-winning performance as Maggie in Patrick Mason's beautiful production of Brian Friel's masterpiece, Dancing at Lughnasa.

She created a character that was filled with warmth, with compassion and a wicked sense of fun. In a highly talented cast, she was the centre of the play and no one who saw it will forget the moment she daubed her face with flour and released the sisters' frenzy with a dance that both shocked and enthralled audiences around the world.

Exactly a year ago, Anita gave her final stage performance. It was in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she, Stephen Brennan and Dearbhla Molloy joined me for my final production at The Guthrie Theatre. The play was Juno and the Paycock and Anita returned to a role we had explored years earlier and she had made her own.

While, of course, none of us knew that we wouldn't see her onstage again, it seems entirely fitting that this amazingly versatile actor would bring her career to a resounding climax with a definitive performance of O'Casey's classic character. That performance used every ounce of her warmth, her graciousness, her empathy and her performance skills. She fine-tuned her work to its essence and offered a portrayal that broke your heart and, yet, at the end of the play, offered the hope that Juno could survive and have a better life in the future.

It was a masterclass in acting and all the young American actors would crowd into the wings every night to watch her final moments in the play - to listen, to learn and to remember. I will never forget the closing performance of that production where, despite having directed it many times, I was moved to tears as Anita offered that famous prayer to "take away our heart of stone and give us hearts of flesh".

While Anita was one of the greats in her chosen ­profession, what was so ­special about her was her innate capacity for love and loyalty. First and foremost, there was her love for her husband, Julian Erskine, her daughter, Gemma and her son, Danny, the three pillars of her life. Her devotion to her family came before any professional achievement or public success.

While not devoid of ambition, she was never driven by it or by the need to be famous. While she embraced success with dignity and a mild scepticism, she always knew where the centre of her world resided. It was in the bosom of her loving family, it was among her legion of close friends and at her family home in Terenure.

Broadway could beckon, The West End might plead but, unless the role excited her, offered her joy and didn't disrupt the even tenor of family life, she was happier to spend time with those she loved and allow others take the limelight.

In her final illness, she showed strength and patience and passed away quietly, without fuss - so typical of this very special person.

Sunday Independent

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