Gifted comic actress who savoured challenge of tragedy
Long association with Gate Theatre
Susan FitzGerald as Mrs Winemiller in the 2003 Gate production of Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale. PHOTOGRAPH: TOM LAWLOR
Susan FitzGerald, who has died at 64 after a long illness, in a 2006 interview with The Irish Times gave a quick character assessment as she prepared a stage role. “She’s charming, she’s delightful, she harbours no rancour. She’s able, with her quick thinking, to set off little explosions everywhere.”
She was describing Constance Middleton in Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife, but, echoed this week by the tributes of friends and colleagues, her words could have easily served as a self-portrait. A gifted comic actress who also savoured the challenge of tragedy, FitzGerald was defined by a generosity of spirit and a warm wit, traits that marked her approach to the stage.
Acting, FitzGerald had decided at the age of 10, was the only career she would ever pursue. As a graduate from Trinity College in the early 1970s, she began an association with the Gate Theatre that would last over four decades and secured a place in the theatre through phenomenal comic instincts, exquisite timing and a melodious voice that she could lower to a cut-glass trill or raise to a howl.
“How does one know one is in love?” her character was asked in The Constant Wife. FitzGerald paused to consider, then answered with authority, “Could you use his toothbrush?” On stage, her effect could be as light as gossamer, but she worked painstakingly to understand her roles.
She was born in Leicester in 1949, the eldest of six children. Her father, William FitzGerald, was a doctor who had moved to England with his wife, Emily Irwin, to start a GP practice. In 1966, the family returned to Kinsale, but she completed her education in Evington Hall school in Leicester.
Her family has strong connections to the arts. She was the niece of the Hollywood star and Broadway actress Geraldine FitzGerald (who had begun her own career at the Gate in the 1930s), and a cousin to novelist Jennifer Johnston and actor Tara FitzGerald.
In 1968, FitzGerald attended Trinity to study English, philosophy and history, and gravitated to the drama society, Players. There she stood out as a gifted performer whose peers included Jeananne Crowley, Sorcha Cusack, Paul McGuinness and Michael Colgan. She married the latter while at college.
Colgan would become the second artistic director in the Gate’s history, but FitzGerald’s association began with its original directors, Micheál Mac Liammóir and Hilton Edwards, for whom she performed in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1973. In those formative years, she acquired a meticulous approach to constructing a performance from Edwards. Director Alan Stanford, who worked with her for 40 years, considered her a master technician. “She was relentless,” he recalled. “Like someone building up a wall, she meticulously built her character, layer by layer.”