By Joseph Hurley
One of Ireland’s finest actors, Donal McCann, 56, died on Sunday morning in Dublin from pancreatic cancer. Word of McCann’s not unexpected death reached the cast of Brian Friel’s version of Anton Chekhov’s "Uncle Vanya" as they were about to begin their final performance of the Gate Theater Dublin production, which had come to New York as part of Lincoln Center’s Festival 99.
When the matinee performance ended on Sunday, Niall Buggy, who played the title role, stepped forward in the last curtain call, asked for silence, and informed the audience at LaGuardia Drama Theater of McCann’s passing and asked for a final round of applause in memory of the actor. Some members of the audience shouted "No!" in shock, while others stood and others sobbed.
McCann had played in the New York area fairly regularly, most recently three seasons ago when he gave an astonishing and unforgettable performance in the title role of Sebastian Barry’s "The Steward of Christendom" at the Majestic Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Before that, there had been the brief Broadway run of Brian Friel’s "Wonderful Tennessee," in which the actor played a Dublin turf accountant and failed entrepreneur who leads his wife and his in-laws on a voyage of discovery to a mysterious island off the Irish coast.
McCann’s finest Broadway hour, almost certainly, came in the early summer of 1988, when he headed the cast of Joe Dowling’s Gate Theater production of Sean O’Casey’s "Juno and the Paycock."
Writing in the New York Times of Wednesday, June 22, 1988, critic Frank Rich wrote of McCann’s performance as Captain Jack Boyle that the actor was "brilliant at blending robust humor with brute nastiness," and went on to comment that "this performance won’t be confused with twinkling Irish rogues of stage lore — or with Mr. McCann’s poetic Gabriel Conroy in John Huston’s film of ‘The Dead.’ "
McCann’s performance as the husband of Anjelica Huston in her director-father’s highly praised movie version of "The Dead," one of the stories from James Joyce’s collection, "Dubliners," was among the actor’s finest film roles.
Recently, Donal McCann appeared in Bernardo Bertolucci’s "Stealing Beauty," playing the sculptor-husband of Irish actress Sinead Cusack. McCann leaves one as-yet-unreleased film, "Illuminata," written and directed by actor John Turturro.
Among the leading actors in the Gate Theater’s "Uncle Vanya" was John Kavanagh, who played the villainous Joxer Daly opposite McCann in "Juno and the Paycock," and then played McCann’s brother-in-law, an antiquarian book dealer and unsuccessful scholar, in Friel’s "Wonderful Tennessee."
Also among those mourning McCann’s passing was Sebastian Barry, who noted that at the time of "The Steward of Christendom" Barry, Newsweek magazine described McCann as the greatest actor in the English-speaking world.
"My only argument with that was the phrase in the English-speaking world," Barry said. "He was a nuclear actor. He had so much compression within himself that when he brought that onto the stage it broadcast in a most extraordinary and unique way."
Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre, said the actor was a remarkable talent.
"For me, Donal McCann was the best stage actor that this country has ever produced. I don’t think anybody I have ever seen could come close to the genius that was McCann. What he did was always just right, it was inspired."