Father and Child Reunion
Beau O'Reilly reconnects with his son the best way he can--in a new stage production.
By Justin Hayford
Not long ago, a 16-year-old boy nearly brought Beau O'Reilly to his knees without saying a word or moving a muscle. O'Reilly, one of the founders of the iconoclastic Curious Theatre Branch, was standing backstage at the Lunar Cabaret when he peered out into the audience. Sitting in the front row was his son, Rory, whom he'd abandoned on the day of his birth.
It takes a lot to rattle O'Reilly. The 47-year-old playwright, actor, musician, and elder statesman of the fringe theater scene has survived battles with booze and drugs, poverty, desertion, homelessness, communal living, and a nervous breakdown. But that day 16 years before had been one of the most harrowing of his life.
In 1982 he was living in Champaign, where he'd moved with his partner Kit Keasey and their daughter Rhiannon a year and a half earlier. Born and raised in Chicago, he'd met Keasey in Madison; she played piano in the band he had formed there, Maestro Subgum and the Whole. "She was a classically based artist doing this cabaret stuff with us in Madison and living in a hippie commune," O'Reilly says. "So one day she suddenly decided she had to go back to Champaign; she had to study with Herbert Brün, who she studied with in school." Brün taught composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "She said, 'I'm going--come if you want.' So I did."
But Champaign might as well have been the dark side of the moon. "I didn't know anybody there, I'd never lived there, I had no connections," O'Reilly says. "Nothing to do there except little shows with Kit occasionally." He landed a job running the Red Herring coffeehouse, the local hippie hangout. Life was uneventful until the day Keasey vanished.
"She just disappeared, literally," O'Reilly says. "Took our daughter and left. Her moving to Champaign in the first place was an indication of difficulty between us. But she was always fast about things. I made some efforts to find her, but they were lame. I didn't want to take her to court or whatever. I kept expecting her to come back. But she stayed real, real gone."
Rhiannon was three when her mother took her away. "That was pretty awful, pretty painful," O'Reilly says. "And it started this period that was probably already in motion for me. I did a lot of drinking and a lot of drugs, which is why my memory isn't too good on this period of time."
But he definitely remembers meeting a woman shortly thereafter named Debby Jobst, although he can't recall the details. "I thought she was a student. A pretty straight person, by my guesstimation of what that is."
Actually, Jobst had finished college long before. She was 28 and worked in early childhood development. She also belonged to an experimental film group that showed films at the Red Herring. She was their projectionist and posterer. "It was my bohemian phase, let's say," she says with a laugh.
"Debby and I had a very short-term relationship," O'Reilly says. "I didn't think it was going to be something that lasted. I don't think I was thinking much at all, to be honest."
Then Jobst informed him that she was pregnant. "I'd just been through this terrible thing. I was way flipped out about losing my daughter. So I said, 'I just can't. I can't be part of this.'"
"It was awful," Jobst recalls. "But I also knew that I had the power to make my own decision. I wasn't a teenager, I was 28. I knew I could do it. So I did."
For the next nine months the two remained friends, although they no longer considered themselves a couple. O'Reilly lost his job at the Red Herring. "I was drinking a lot, doing a lot of dope, and wandering around," he says. "Living on people's couches, not really having a place to live. Just very much in disarray, very emotional all the time. I was in this horror show place most of the time."
He only came out of his fog when his first child, Colm, came to visit. Colm was six years old at the time; his mother had been O'Reilly's high school sweetheart. "I got it together for those visits, then I'd fall apart again."
On the day Rory was born, O'Reilly was at Jobst's side. (He'd been present at the births of his other two children as well.) "Right after the birth, her parents asked me to leave," he says. "I didn't know if they meant leave forever or leave for a few minutes. But I assume they thought it was inappropriate for me to be there. And they had the authority to ask me to leave."
So he headed out onto the street, walking toward a hotel three miles away where a friend had a room. He'd been crashing there recently. He hadn't had a drink or done any drugs all week, but he began to hallucinate, seeing his children being born over and over again. "I wanted to stop seeing it, but I couldn't, and it was very painful," he says. By the time he got to his friend's room he was chilled to the bone. His friend was out--she had gone to see the new baby--so he walked into her tiny room alone and froze against the wall. "I was convinced that if I moved I would die."
He stood there motionless for hours, hallucinating, until his friend returned. "She peeled me off the wall like a stamp and stuck me in her bed. And when I woke up, I knew that I just couldn't be there. So I moved to Chicago."
Soon after his return he started picking up odd jobs in Chicago theater, thanks mostly to his father, James O'Reilly, then the artistic director of the Body Politic Theatre. About nine months later, Jobst moved to Chicago with Rory. "They followed me here, that's what I thought," O'Reilly says. "Because, of course, it's all about me, right?"
In fact, Jobst had come to pursue a master's degree in education at Roosevelt University. Over the next several years O'Reilly occasionally ran into Jobst and Rory on the street and made halfhearted attempts to reconnect. But while he had quit drinking when he moved to Chicago, by 1985 he was at it again. "So I just shut the door on them," he says. "I just couldn't go there." But Jobst and Rory didn't disappear. "I was aware of them being around," O'Reilly says. "Old mutual friends would say they'd seen them. And every once in a while Debby would bring Rory to a show I was in at the Curious. Which was a pretty amazing act of courage on her part."
"I think the part of Beau that I most admired and respected was his art," Jobst explains. "So I thought it was important for Rory to see that. I didn't want to push it, but I wanted to make it available to him. I thought it was important for Rory to feel good about all parts of himself. If you tear down one parent, a child can think there's something wrong with him."
So, by age six Rory could be found in the audience at Curious's cramped North Avenue grotto with all the freaks and hipsters of the old Wicker Park scene. "I wasn't one to be baby-sat," he explains. "So my mother would bring me along. I would always enjoy them. Very weird shows."
Fast forward to 1994. The Curious Theatre Branch opened its new Lakeview home, the Lunar Cabaret, and O'Reilly's life was chronicled in a Reader cover story. "In that article I made some allusion to my time in Champaign as a big, alcoholic haze that I didn't remember, with a bunch of women I didn't care much about. And Debby called me and said, 'What the hell? What is with you?' She was very hurt."
Around the same time, Keasey reappeared with Rhiannon, who was now 16. The reunion was a happy one, "but I still couldn't deal with the whole Rory thing at all," he says. "I felt a lot of guilt and shame. But also, I was mad. I still felt like I hadn't had any choice, like this was somehow done to me.
"I knew I couldn't go to them if I wasn't ready to connect. I couldn't half do it. I had to do it for real or not at all. And I wasn't sure there was any desire on his part to connect with me. Whatever happened between his mother and me, he had nothing to do with it, and yet he suffered some consequence because of it. It was all really beginning to weigh on me."
By 1997 O'Reilly had been clean and sober for several years. "Part of that process for me was cleaning up past behaviors, but I kept running up against that one. All the other big problems in my life I'd done work on, but I wasn't willing to work on this one. And the fact that I wasn't willing was like a flashing sign pointing to it: 'This is the place that needs work.' So I started asking people around me, and they would say, 'Yeah, of course that's the source of your problems.' Big surprise, you fucking idiot."
Sometime that year he cracked. "I was too unhappy holding on to the resentment. It was too big a thing to have unresolved in my life. And I understood why making amends was of value to a person spiritually, and that I needed to do it. So I finally came around to a genuine willingness to just acknowledge that I had done wrong, without any expectation of anything from her."
Having accepted his own culpability, he felt ready to reach out. "I decided it was inappropriate for me to just show up and knock on Rory's door. So I wrote a letter to his mother, who I felt was the first person I owed an apology to. I wrote about my behavior and had nothing to say about hers. I still have nothing to say about hers."
"I was very suspicious when I got the letter," Jobst says. "I didn't know what he was after." She did not respond.
But a few months later she read about a performance O'Reilly was giving with John Starrs, an evening of poetry by Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. "Rory was really getting into poetry and really liked Ginsberg," she says. "I knew that bringing Rory to the show, Beau would interpret that as an overture. But, you know, what can you do?"
When O'Reilly spotted Rory and his mother in the front row before the show started, he knew the moment of truth had arrived. "I performed badly, because I was so distracted," he recalls. But after the show he approached the pair and spoke his first real words to his son.
"It was like being a teenager," he says. "I felt clumsy and awkward. I didn't know what to talk about. I didn't know whether to shake his hand. I blushed. I got all sweaty. It was new territory, I had nothing to go on, and no one could really help me with that. It was meeting someone brand-new I didn't know at all but who had this tremendous import in my life, and knowing that I had this tremendous import in his life, even if just by absence."
"I was more shy than scared," Rory, now 18, says of their first meeting. "More concerned with being polite. Beau probably had plans to call me later and make an effort to connect. But as far as I knew that might be the last time I'd ever see him.
"And I didn't care if we connected, really. Me and my mom were very happy together, just me and her all my life, and I was OK with that. It was nice that it happened, but I would have been just fine otherwise."
Despite O'Reilly's nerves, that first meeting went well. "He talked to me about Allen Ginsberg and poetry, and how he loved that work," O'Reilly says. "So there was this connection immediately."
Soon Jobst contacted O'Reilly. "She was very suspicious," he says. "She said, 'Do you really want to know your son? Or is this just some kind of cosmetic gesture?' And as soon as she said that, I knew that I did. Up until that point I didn't know that. Maybe it was just hearing the words 'your son.' It meant something specific coming from her. A great weight lifted off of me. Suddenly I was willing to do what I was doing."
O'Reilly and Rory began having occasional dinners together, then dinner and a movie. Then Rory invited his father to see him in his school's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It was the first time O'Reilly had seen his son act. He suffered another bout of teenage angst when he took his seat in the audience that night. "I didn't know what I was supposed to do, what my role was. I was surrounded by all these real parents. I had this very disconcerting experience of not knowing who the fuck I was."
Then Rory appeared onstage. "It was amazing to see him up there. I was impressed with him as an actor, and I was also strongly drawn to our genetic connection. He reminded me of my brothers, he reminded me of my father, he reminded me of my son Colm, all performers. There are certain gestures of the hand, certain expressions of the face that are family linked. And he had those things, even though he didn't grow up with my family. I took real pleasure in that."
Rory, like his father and grandfather, turned out to be a man of the stage. He'd been acting in community theater since the age of nine and was currently acting, writing, and directing in the theater program at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. This fall he's heading to Marymount Manhattan College to pursue a degree in theater arts. "It's in my blood," he says. "But I've only done it because I love it. I was never the one to go on a lot of commercial auditions."
A few months ago Rory came to his father with an idea that could cement their connection. "I had a summer last year when I didn't do any theater," he explains, "and I really missed it. And in the past I've rehearsed independent stuff, but it never worked out. We couldn't find a space, or somebody would go on vacation or something. So I thought, well, my father's a big theater guy, and he has a theater..."
Rory suggested that he and O'Reilly each mount an original play in a single evening. Each playwright would direct his own piece, which would star the other. O'Reilly enthusiastically agreed. The show runs for four performances next Thursday, August 24, through Sunday, August 27, at the Lunar Cabaret.
Rory's play, Dislocation to the Left, tells the story of a self-hating slacker named Quagmire. He sits around his house doing nothing but writing poems and pining for women. "That seems remarkably familiar to me as a theme," O'Reilly says--the same summary could describe his last play. Quagmire's conscience is a savage drill sergeant played by O'Reilly. "Rory describes him as the sadistic father figure Quagmire never had," he says.
It's Rory's first professional production, and he's not only directing his own play but directing his once-errant father. "Everyone in the show, with the exception of one person, is at least five or six years older than me," he says. "And you know, Beau's been around the theater like 20 years, and I'm not even 20 yet. So it can be a bit intimidating. But he always takes my notes very well."
"He gives me more notes than he gives anybody else," O'Reilly says. "About three times as many, as a matter of fact. My friends laugh and say, 'You got your son directing the hell out of you.'
"It's nice that it's worked out," he says, echoing the words of both Rory and his mother.
O'Reilly's contribution to the evening is called Whiskey and Blue. "It started with the image of a boy with broken legs lying in a clearing, talking to a scarecrow," he says. "It's set in a tiny town, so small it has no name. Sections are described by the dominant colors there. There's a blue section, a gray section"--here O'Reilly's eyes light up--"and the violet section where the lawns are like silk, where everybody hopes to end up eventually."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.