Gina Costigan said being involved with the Broadway production of “The Ferryman” is “exciting and terrifying all at the same time.” PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT
By Peter McDermott
Gina Costigan has made her Broadway breakthrough, it could be said, without ever having been on stage.
She is the understudy for the leading female role and one other major part in “The Ferryman,” which began late last month and will continue at least through the middle of February.
Ben Brantley said in the New York Times: “No matter what sort of spread you’ve planned for your Thanksgiving dinner, it won’t be a patch on the glorious feast that has been laid out at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. That’s where Jez Butterworth’s thrilling new play ‘The Ferryman’ opened on Sunday night, with a generosity of substance and spirit rarely seen on the stage anymore.”
And he was just getting warmed up.
Costigan, however, is ready.
“It’s exciting and terrifying all at the same time,” she said of her role as understudy for both Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly in the play set in rural Northern Ireland in 1981 during the Troubles.
On the day Costigan spoke with the Echo, an understudy was required to go on after the matinee show had started.
“Of course, when you’re watching a great performance, which they really are in this play, there’s a little bit of you that would like to be up there doing it,” she said. “But it’s overridden by the excitement of being involved in the whole thing and in the challenge of possibly having to go on at the drop of a hat.”
The Dubliner has had a varied and interesting career since her 2003 teenage movie debut in “Veronica Guerin” opposite Cate Blanchett and Ciarán Hinds. Brought to New York in recent years by an acting school scholarship (“near impossible to turn down such an offer,” she said in a previous interview), she has won critical praise for her work on the off-Broadway stage, such as in “Crackskull Row” in 2017 at the Irish Repertory Theatre and in “Party Face” as Hayley Mills’s daughter earlier this year.
The cast was the same when Honor Molloy’s “Crackskull Row” debuted at the Cell Theatre in 2016 as part of Origin’s 1st Irish Festival that year. Costigan has had a high community profile generally with performances under the auspices of the Poor Mouth Theatre Company in the Bronx, the Irish-American Writers & Artists and Artists Without Walls.
It was the “Party Face” experience that made her curious about the actor who must fill in at the last moment or during the play itself. A colleague who learned four of the five roles for that show went on to play three of them, including that of the star Mills. “I really admired her for that,” Costigan said of the understudy.
She wasn’t sure at first about how to prepare for two important roles. “It’s been a big learner for me,” the Dubliner said.
“We don’t have understudies. It’s not really a thing in Ireland,” she said, “It would be a rare occasion.”
But, the actor believes it makes sense in New York with its big theatres, long runs and strong union.
As it happens, Costigan’s mother has a significant story to tell from her past about replacing an actor who fell ill. “She was the stage manager at the Gate Theatre and had studied acting,” the daughter said. As she had watched the play every night, it was suggested she go on; it was not by prior agreement.
Maria McDermottroe has had a distinguished career since on the stage, in film and on television.
The young actor's father is John Costigan, the retired executive director of the Gaiety Theatre, while an uncle, London-based Conor McDermottroe, is a director and writer for the stage and cinema (he directed a performance of his play “Swansong” last week in New York).
“Mum and Dad are delighted,” she said about her job at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater.
When Costigan phoned the news through to her family in the spring her mother was at work in a theatre in Dublin. “She ran crying in to the dressing room to all her cast mates,” her daughter said.
McDermottroe understood what a big opportunity being part of a Butterworth production is. His “Jerusalem” (2009), an exploration of English history and myth, was a huge critical hit, while “The Ferryman” likewise won numerous awards during its 18-month run on the West End. The director Sam Mendes, who is even more of a household name, has reached a larger audience with his work on the recent James Bond films “Skyfall” and “Spectre” (Butterworth worked on both also). “The Ferryman” presents the chance, too, to work with celebrated actors like Paddy Considine and Fionnuala Flanagan.
There are 21 speaking parts in “The Ferryman,” while an infant, a rabbit and a goose also appear on stage during the performance.
Costigan took a break in Ireland ahead of the play for the summer months to spend time with her boyfriend and her parents. She did some work: a Guinness ad and also a short film with Niall McKay, who is perhaps best known in the U.S. as the director of the Irish Screen America festivals on the East and West Coasts. She played a garda in the McKay-directed shoot, which involved a day working in and around a Garda car and interactions with real gardaí. “They were the craic,” she said, laughing. “I really enjoyed that day.”
All the while, she was mentally preparing for her new gig in the fall and winter.
Costigan, whose ever supportive parents sent her flowers on opening night “even though I wasn’t performing,” is looking forward to their visit over Christmas. She can’t relax on with them on Christmas Day, however, because there’s a show scheduled and she’ll be at the theatre. She doesn’t expect to be performing as “we all got our flu shots the other day.”
But the actor does believe that it’s likely that she’ll have to step in at some point.
“As much as you prepare for that,” Costigan said. “It will be a jolt when it happens.”