A Friend in the Theater & on the Court
by David P. Kozinski
Native Philadelphian Michael Toner, wrote an elegant, personal eulogy in memory of Brian Friel, in response to the death last year of the great Irish playwright – and, as I learned, short-story writer. Michael’s article was published in the November 2015 issue of The Irish Edition. Titled “The Magician of Ballybeg: Brian Friel (1929 – 2015),” the article relates biographical information about Friel and his work, and observes his place in the history of literature. It also offers insight about how the writer affected Michael’s life and work; as an actor, playwright, director and dialect coach.
My wife, Patti Allis Mengers, also an actor, director and writer, knew Michael from their participation in the Philadelphia theater scene before I met him. She introduced us to one another in the mid-1990s. Almost immediately he and I found that we had much in common; literature, ideas, a love of poetry and language, and, most importantly, the need for a tennis partner.
For the next five years or so we played singles on public courts in Northeast Philadelphia, at Roosevelt Park in South Philly – contending with the traffic noise from I-95, just above us – and even in Maine a couple of times when Patti and I visited Michael at his summertime digs in Belfast. Because of the aforementioned highway noise, we developed hand signals to keep score and to indicate whether a shot was in or out.
I do not recall either of us ever offering the middle finger as commentary on the other’s “out” call, even though our matches were quite competitive. The mood always remained friendly. In 2001 we began playing doubles with two pretty good athletes, which was both a bit easier on the legs and lungs, and also raised our games, somewhat. We did not become good tennis players, but we’ve had a great deal of fun and decent exercise in our mediocrity.
In his tribute to Friel, Michael notes, “Memories flood me of working Brian’s plays…the great ensemble of Volunteers under Deen Kogan at Society Hill Playhouse…the east coast premiere of Translations at Villanova, directed by the Abbey Theatre’s Paul Moore…acting and directing Dancing At Lughnasa in Portland and Belfast, Maine…performing my one-man show of Friel monologues, The Humors of Ballybeg, at Rowan University…doing Molly Sweeney, directed by Mimi Kenney Smith for Amaryllis Theatre…assisting the late Frank Olley in directing Aristocrats at Saint Joseph’s University…each play had its own unique magic, and you knew that with Brian Friel’s words on the page, you were in the presence of a master…” Through his friend, the late Professor Lester Connor, Michael met Friel and his wife Anne in the summer of 1980, visiting for tea at their home in Muff, County Donegal. This was shortly after Translations had been premiered by Friel’s Field Day Theater in Derry city and was touring to sellout crowds in Ireland.
I was able to attend several of the Friel plays in which Michael participated, including Translations, Aristocrats, and The Humors of Ballybeg which deepened our friendship and widened my rather narrow theater education. I’ve been in the audience when he’s acted in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, in Rock Doves by Marie Jones and in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Michael is a voracious reader and Vietnam vet whose own plays address a variety of themes. I’ve enjoyed his one-man show, Ever Yours, Scott Fitzgerald, its title taken from the closing the novelist used in his letters, and Michael’s large-cast Vietnam veterans’ reunion play, Another Dead Soldier.
Over the years, we’ve occasionally exchanged our own works-in-progress, as well as books by great writers; most of them of or about poetry. Gifts from Michael of collections I’ve savored by Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Richard Howard come quickly to mind. We participated in an evening of scenes from Shakespeare that Patti organized, upstairs at Philadelphia’s Plays & Players on Delancey Street in the mid-1990s. Highlights of the evening were Patti’s late mother, Eileen Kovatch Mengers, cast as one of the weird sisters in a script-in-hand scene from MacBeth and wearing two pairs of glasses in order to read her part, and Michael’s performance. I don’t recall which scene he acted from memory – it may have been from Hamlet – but I do remember that his entrance was arresting and his delivery natural, convincing.
In June, Michael was halfway through the four scheduled performances of the late poet and playwright David Simpson’s autobiographical play, Crossing the Threshold into the House of Bach, a production of the Amaryllis Theater Company. In the play, a blind organist, practicing J.S. Bach’s last chorale prelude late at night, strikes up a conversation with a youth minister that reveals experiences from Simpson’s own life, while exploring profound themes. Michael had completed two performances of the challenging play at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Elkins Park (PA). He was preparing for the second pair of shows at St. Mary’s Church at the University of Pennsylvania, rehearsing at the Amaryllis, located on Sansom Street, when calamity struck.
Walking to catch the train home to Northeast Philadelphia, sometime around 11:00 P.M. and in a heavy downpour, Michael was hit by a driver who fled the scene. The proximity to Jefferson Hospital may have saved his life, but the doctors could not save Michael’s left leg, which was amputated. (Don’t believe the postings on the web that cite his having lost his right leg.) This was Tuesday, June 9th, just days before the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference started, always a busy weekend for me. As soon as she heard the news, Patti visited Michael in the hospital and reported that he was awake and communicating, which was very encouraging. Meanwhile, the Philly theater community reacted with alarm and concern, spreading the news widely and quickly.
Gentle and intellectually inclined, my friend is nevertheless feisty; tough-minded and determined. Anyone who carves out a place for himself in the theater must be. These qualities have no doubt contributed to his recovery, as did keeping himself in shape through running, tennis and exercising at a gym for years.
In a phone conversation last summer Michael told me he had counted 15 visits to Jefferson’s O.R. during which he was under anaesthesia; four times for operations and the rest for other procedures. After being released from the hospital, he received a prosthetic leg and rapidly learned to walk with it. Michael credits the hospital’s staff and that of Moss Rehabilitation with excellent care. He also told me about meeting the daughterof the late Penn professor and U.S. Poet Laureate, Daniel Hoffman, at Jefferson. She was helping Michael plan his post-hospital care. They not only discussed aftercare, they talked literature, which was, no doubt, excellent therapy.
Before the injury, Michael was cast in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, reprising his portrayal of Phil Hogan. On January 20th, Patti and I attended a performance upstairs at the Walnut Street Theater along with a large, enthusiastic audience. “Phil” is an old farmer and Michael’s hindered gait seemed like a natural part of his character. While we were having dinner at a nearby pub after the performance, a couple approached our table. The woman told Michael that she hadn’t realized before the performance that he had a prosthetic leg. She thought his limp was part of the role!
When the play’s run in Philadelphia ended, the cast took it on the road for a month, visiting universities and arts centers in ten states. They performed the play and conducted master classes in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and New England and headed south to Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and then west to Indiana and Michigan. Michael told me the tour was both exhilarating and exhausting, as one might expect, and quite fulfilling.
With luck, Michael will be fitted with a new, computerized prosthesis in the near future that would allow for much greater mobility. I look forward to seeing my friend on the boards for years to come, and someday joining my brother-in-racquets out on the tennis court; volleying at the net, exchanging friendly japes, and laughing.