Rebecca Finnegan | Performer of the week
In a role made famous by Bette Davis in the 1956 film adaptation of A Catered Affair, Rebecca Finnegan breathes new life into grieving mother Aggie Hurley with her powerful voice and nuanced characterization. As a mother dealing with the loss of her son while trying to give her daughter the wedding she never had, Finnegan exquisitely captures Aggie’s intense loss while retaining hope for the future. Born in Cincinatti, Ohio, Finnegan knew from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in the arts. She attended a performing-arts high school before going to Wright State University in Dayton, where she dropped out after three years to pursue an acting career. She’s been working ever since, and has become one of the Chicago’s top musical theater talents. Finnegan speaks to us about avoiding films and cast recordings, the financial sacrifices she’s had to make for her art, and why A Catered Affair is timely today.
Were you familiar with the film before you got the part?
No, I had no idea. Bob Lindley, who is one of the artistic associates at Porchlight, is a good friend of mine, and he’s actually the one who brought the show to Porchlight. Before they’d even decided on the season, he started talking to me about A Catered Affair. I went over—his partner is Doug Peck, our musical director—and they had the movie. I watched it with them and thought it was a lovely story.
Did you watch it again after you had been cast?
No. I make it a point not to watch or listen too much to any recordings or DVDs of a piece I’m working on. It just influences me too much, and I like to start off from the bare bones of what’s on the page and build it from there.
Did you feel any pressure stepping into a part made famous by such an iconic actress?
I was so flattered. I didn’t feel any pressure because I know nobody could do what she did. I just put that aside and was flattered to play a role that she got to play. It’s very exciting.
I was very impressed by the moments when you weren’t singing, like that first scene where you’re sitting at the dinner table after your son’s memorial, staring into empty space. The son is an important character that we never see, how did you make him real for you?
The first scene where’s she’s sitting at the table, for me it really starts to establish the sense of emptiness in the house, and I just imagined sitting at that tables, and one of those chairs would have been where her son always sat. Just feeling the emptiness of that space. If you’ve ever really caught someone thinking about something and they don’t know you’re seeing them, there’s no façade, there’s no thinking “someone’s watching me” or “I need to put on this face.” The face is very soft, and I just sat there thinking through what she would be thinking, sitting at the table after coming home from Washington and the memorial service and she has the flag in her hand. It’s actually one of my favorite parts of the show.
How did you build Aggie’s relationship with her family?
Well Craig [Spidle, who plays Aggie’s husband Tom] is such a pro and Kelly [Davis Wilson, who plays Aggie’s daughter Janey] is such a doll baby sweetheart, it was so easy to imagine her as my child—I don’t have any children—or even like a little sister. [Craig] is such a strong man, and everyone has a great sense of humor and its such a labor of love for everyone involved. We all just threw in everything we had, so the respect in the room was very high.
Why do you think this is great play for our current political and economic climate?
I just had a friend of mine bring her little girl, and her husband is getting ready to go to Afghanistan. There are lots and lots of people that can relate to loved ones—husbands, fathers, brothers, son—being lost in a foreign conflict. The financial crunch we’re all in right now, the play could be happening right now. They could update this play for 2012 and it would absolutely be timely.
As an artist, have you ever found yourself in a position where you had to sacrifice something you wanted to do because finances weren’t allowing you to do it? It’s not the most steady income. How did you relate to that conflict in Aggie: choosing between having money versus doing something you’ve always wanted to do?
The key to that with Aggie for me was that she never asks for anything for herself. So when she does make this decision for her husband and herself, that they’re going to make this financial sacrifice, I think that she feels she has earned that right because of all the sacrifices she has made. Not only financially in the relationship, but ultimately just staying in the relationship and sacrificing her sense of herself as a woman, and staying in this marriage where she feels unloved. She’s made this decision out of wanting to do something out of love for her daughter, and I can certainly relate to having to make those decisions about finances.
Being an actor in Chicago is (laughs)—I was doing a show at the Goodman a while ago with some very famous actors and we’re all sitting around the green room joking and laughing, and one of them says his son wanted to go into acting. And I said [sarcastically], “That’s great, it’s a really great way to make a lot money really fast.” And the whole room was like, “Huh?” (Laughs.) And I’m like, “Oh, I’m sorry. You guys make a lot of money, you’re not Chicago actors.” But those are decisions you make. My sister has a house, two cars, a husband and kids and blah blah blah, and I’m doing what I love and what I always have wanted to do. I work my day job, and I make it happen, because it’s what I love to do.
Porchlight Music Theatre's A Catered Affair runs through April 1 at Stage 773 (1225 W Belmont Ave, 773-327-5252).