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Taking his time
Richard Donellyís life has informed his craft

Ever since it began, 28 seasons ago, Richard Donelly has made sure to catch Trinity Repís production of A Christmas Carol, which runs November 13 through December 26.

"There was a time in my life when my life was kind of tough," he said. "I was going through relationship changes and all of that. And it meant a great deal to me. It really did. Itís a wonderful story, the whole redemption.

"Being a blue-collar worker and a construction worker, Iím one of those in the audience that pretends to sneeze if something gets to me. I donít want to start tearing up in front of everyone. Iíll go . . . ."

He demonstrated covering up an unmanly display of emotion, and laughed.

Donelly has additional reason to smile this year: he will be playing Jacob Marley in the Ivy cast, the one with Cynthia Strickland playing Scrooge. (Stephen Berenson plays the Great Curmudgeon in the Holly cast.)

"Some people consider it to be a Hallmark card, but I just love the story," he said, speaking at a café table in the theaterís baroque upstairs lobby. "And then you look at all the little kids in the audience with their mouths open. Itís wonderful. And now I get to do that."

And do it beside his wife of three years, Trinity Repertory Company member Phyllis Kay, who will play Belle and Lucy. His family also includes daughter Tanya, the indie punk and pop singer formerly in Throwing Muses and Belly, and son Christopher, a jewelry designer living in South Carolina.

The actor, 58, has been in three other Trinity productions since the early í90s, which got him his Actorsí Equity card. But because of his day job, he never became a company member. He retired three years ago as a union card-carrying plumber, work he got into straight out of high school ó his naval officer father wanted him to go to college, but Donelly preferred the fresh air of construction sites.

The way he figures it, heís had the best of both worlds: the bump and tussle of the real world and a creative life as well. He says he probably "would have more chops" as an actor if heíd taken the academic road, but if he had the choice again he wouldnít trade that for his gradual on-the-job acting training. Although, he recalls, it did get hectic at times.

"I would lay the clothes that I had for rehearsal out on the floor in front of the shower," he said. "So Iíd come home from work, get into the shower, get on my clothes, and run. I was home about 20 minutes a day! Yeah, it was pretty wild."

Donelly may have felt run ragged by the hectic pace, but the steady practice certainly polished his abilities as an actor. By now, even before he speaks a line, whatever character heís playing can hold the stage with a commanding and thoughtful presence, as he did in the title role of Gammís Julius Caesar this spring.

He started acting around 1970. After his first audition, his response to being offered the role of Mercutio in a Newport Players Guild production of Hamlet, was: "No way." Intimidated, he accepted only a minor part. Nevertheless, the acting experience hooked him.

"I donít want to be ridiculous about it, but I think theater helped save my life," he said about that period. "I mean, I was doing a lot of things I shouldnít have been doing and ingesting a lot of things I shouldnít have been ingesting."

So he began to become a familiar face in leading roles at off-Trinity theater around here, most notably as a fixture at Alias Stage, the precursor to the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre. Donelly made it sound romantic when he noted that the old Alias location in an Olneyville factory building had rats backstage.

"I love drama," he said. "I like being immersed in something that I can go to and get lost in. I really enjoy that a lot.

"Comedy is hard to do if youíre not in a good mood," he added with a laugh. "I find drama much easier. The longer it runs, the better it is."

That last observation also applies to his career. Recent years have seen Donelly in plays in New York (Global Village) and Boston (Shear Madness), as well as on television and in indie movies such as Urban Relics and By a Thread.

A non-speaking part in Mystic River almost got onto his résumé, but instead got onto the cutting room floor. Nevertheless, it may have been his most exciting acting experience. He described being on the set and noticing that, "Hey, thatís Clint Eastwood over there!" The director chose that moment to come up to him, point across the graveyard at Sean Penn and say to Donelly and another "cop" ó here Donelly put on a raspy Eastwood voice ó "Heís going to try to get past you. You stop him." Penn gave it his all, but Donelly did succeed in stopping the actor without breaking him.

"Iíve been really fortunate, because I guess Iím a type, you know," he said. "And if youíre an actor and youíre a blue-collar type ó I got on Law and Order the first time I ever tried. And I did a cab driver in Providence. So itís a great type to be."

Richard Donelly is an interesting type, all right. Itís called a first-rate actor, and thatís been pretty good for us as well.


Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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