Phyllis Kay and Richard Donelly, two living legends of Rhode Island’s small but mighty theater scene, have been married for over 20 years, together for over 30. But the theatrical power couple never had the opportunity to do a pax de deux on stage until The Gamm’s artistic director Tony Estrella called on them to portray old friends and former colleagues Rose and Robin in the Warwick theater’s upcoming production of The Children by Lucy Kirkwood.
Over the course of their storied careers, Kay and Donelly shared the stage in only seven productions. Of those, they had scenes together in just two. “When we did Dead Man’s Cell Phone, I saw you in the car on the way home,” Donelly quips to his wife.
The pair had a theatrical meet-cute during a production of Hamlet at the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre directed by Bob Colonna, himself a titan of the Rhode Island theater scene. “Bob said, ‘I have an actor coming in from New York.’ And we were like, oh, New York,” says Donelly, his eyes rolling up to the ceiling in The Gamm’s lobby. “Then this woman came to the first meeting, and I said, ‘who the hell is that?’” He flashes Kay a flirtatious smile. “We became friends and then she went back to New York.”
The friendship remained, but the romance didn’t begin until several years later, after Donelly split from his second wife and Kay returned to Rhode Island to join Trinity Rep as a company member. They married on a Monday — known in the industry as the actors’ day off. “It was snowing,” Kay recalls. “He said, ‘do you want to go down to city hall and just do it?’ And I said, ‘okay.’”
They celebrated their impromptu marriage, witnessed by two administrative assistants, with lunch and then a movie. “Maybe it’s because we make spectacles of ourselves for our living, but the privacy of that marriage was beautiful,” says Kay.
Now, after over 30 years, the couple who have performed in just a handful of scenes together on stage, star in this intimate three-hander at The Gamm.
Lucy Kirkwood’s post-apocalyptic play The Children, which was nominated for a Tony Award when it premiered on Broadway in 2017, imagines an England on the other side of a nuclear disaster. Married couple Hazel and Robin are scientists who retired from the nuclear plant before it melted down close to their home. Having retreated to a summer cottage just outside the contamination zone, they spend their days rationing electricity, tending to their cows, and practicing yoga, attempting to live as normal a life as possible. Their not-quite-idyllic retirement turns into a tailspin when their former coworker Rose arrives unexpectedly at their door.
It’s surprising Kay is not playing Hazel, Robin’s wife, but Rose, the interloper. “Casting her as Rose was a completely intuitive agreement between Phyllis and me. We never really even talked about it,” says artistic director Estrella. “Some of the best decisions are the unspoken ones. And I think the real-life married couple exploring a very different kind of long-term relationship on stage will be exciting for them, for the wonderful Candice Brown who is playing Hazel, and the audience.”
While the play uses a post-apocalyptic framework, it is ultimately a relationship play. “The nuclear Armageddon reveals who these people are,” says Kay. “It’s surprising because people possess qualities that on the face of it you don’t expect them to possess.”
It wasn’t just the opportunity to share the stage that drew both of them to Kirkwood’s play. In an industry obsessed with youth, finding a play with three meaty roles for older actors was an anomaly. “There aren’t a lot of plays for older people,” says Kay. “[Playwrights] just don’t write them.”
“We once found a book, and the title was something like Plays for Older People,” Donelly says. “The oldest character was 45.” The pair chuckle at the absurdity.
“But don’t we all feel like we don’t measure up?” Kay asks, her rhetorical question capturing a universal truth at the heart of the play. “When you ask yourself, why do these characters make the choices they make? Is it their one last glory to indicate their lives meant something?” Kay shrugs. “That’s the element of selfishness in their sacrifice. But the idea that my life meant something….yeah, I hope it did.”
Doing a play like The Children together, with both of them on stage interacting for almost the full 90 minutes, “feels a little private,” concedes Kay. “It’s a good play and I’m working with a very good actor,” says Donelly. “What could be better?”
The Children runs April 27-May 14. • GammTheatre.org
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