O'Connell returns to Berkshires in WTF's 'Before the Meeting'

Deirdre O'Connell during a rehearsal of "Before the Meeting." O'Connell is a Taconic High School graduate whose father was the founding president of Berkshire Community College.

WILLIAMSTOWN — It doesn't take long for Deirdre O'Connell to think of a lasting influence from her youth in Pittsfield community theaters.

"Bob Boland," the 1971 Taconic High School graduate told The Eagle during a Thursday phone interview.

For O'Connell, who played Amaryllis in a Kiwanis Club-sponsored, Boland-directed production of "The Music Man" at the Boys' Club in 1964, the late arts educator's energy was difficult to fathom.

"You look back, and you're like, "Wait, he was everywhere all the time; how did he actually do that?'" she said.

Boland's name is now on the theater at Berkshire Community College, the school where he taught and where O'Connell's late father, Thomas, was the founding president. O'Connell's mother, Anne Ludlum, is an actress and playwright.

O'Connell eventually embarked on her own four-plus-decade career that has included Broadway appearances and Hollywood roles on shows such as "The Affair" and "The Path" and films such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Diane," Pittsfield native Kent Jones' acclaimed debut narrative feature. In 2006, she made her return as an actress to Berkshire County when she performed in Williamstown Theatre Festival's "A Nervous Smile," a play that examines the effects of cerebral palsy on a family. This summer, another challenging Williamstown role brings her back to the Berkshires. In Adam Bock's "Before the Meeting," which begins performances Wednesday on the Nikos Stage, O'Connell plays Gail, a member of an Alcoholics Anonymous group that meets in a church basement. Seventeen years into her sobriety, Gail faces an unexpected challenge to her fortitude: her estranged granddaughter.

"I think so much of the time, the story's about someone's descent into their bottom [and] their painful putting themselves back together into a place of wholeness and wellness, and I think this piece really illuminates that that's a daily struggle, that that's an hourly struggle, that's a minute by minute struggle for these people even if they have many years of sobriety underneath them," director Trip Cullman said during a phone interview.

Survival was of great interest to the playwright.

"I'm interested in seeing how people live sober," Bock said.

As the title suggests, the play focuses on the moments before the meetings when participants are preparing coffee and arranging chairs, a monotonous routine contrasting with members' internal turmoil. Yet, small talk doesn't dominate the piece. After Bock wrote a monologue for a man in "A Life," he wanted to do the same for a female part, he said, so Gail delivers a 25-minute monologue at one point. Cullman, who is a longtime collaborator with Bock, knew he needed an actress for the role whom he could trust and whom trusted him.

"Both as a collaborator and I just think as a human being, [O'Connell's] one of the great, great, great, great people on Earth," Cullman said.

O'Connell felt that the script was "gorgeous," mixing humor with sadness, but also found it daunting.

"There was a moment where I was like, 'Gulp, I don't know if it's possible to do this. I don't know if it's actually neurologically possible to do this,'" she recalled.

She has great respect for those recovering from addiction.

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"It's one of the heroic things that people do, and it takes an enormous amount of very careful consciousness," she said.

O'Connell noted that Gail's monologue bucks traditional entertainment world depictions of AA meetings.

"We've all seen movies and plays where you see a little section of somebody's speech at the front of an AA meeting. It's kind of a common trope. But [Bock] puts the whole speech. I mean, those things are usually 20 to 25 minutes long, and that's what it is," O'Connell said.

Along with Gail, Nicole (Midori Francis) and Ron (Arnie Burton) are also in the group. Nicole has been sober for just under a year.

"She's a young woman. She's pregnant. She's struggling in her relationship, and she looks to Gail as a real maternal figure in stark contrast to her neglectful and absent birth mother, and I think that kind of mentor-mentee relationship, mother-daughter relationship is challenged when Nicole sees Gail's fallibility," Cullman said.

Ron is a bit of a rebel.

"He's there to initially create some conflict inside of the group with a challenge to this system of routines [that] the group has every day," Cullman said.

And then there's Gail, whose struggle highlights the negative effect that addicts can have on more than just their own lives.

"I think the fragility of the contract that they make with themselves to not touch their substance of choice ever again is constantly being illuminated in this play in a way that I think evokes an enormous amount of compassion for these characters' struggles, as well as compassion for the people in their lives around them who they've either harmed or who have harmed them," Cullman said.

The play prompted an unsettling question for the director.

"What do you do," he said, "when the person who you wronged won't forgive you?"

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.