This would have been a busy week for Tony and Susan Reilly.

Their theater company, the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, was scheduled to open Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” on Thursday. Husband and wife, the Reillys cast themselves in the show, setting up a stressful few days of rehearsals, set construction and the uncertainty of opening night.

Theater veterans, they were accustomed to the energy that surrounds the opening of a play, the rewards of making great art and the sacrifices required of both. Their mom-and-pop ensemble was DIY: They did everything themselves, from choosing the scripts to acting and directing, writing grants and seating ticket holders.

Glasses will be raised for the Reillys this St. Patrick’s Day, but there will be no play. The future of their Portland theater company remains uncertain in the wake of a Christmas-week auto accident that killed Susan, 64, and maimed Tony, 60.

On Dec. 23, two days after closing a holiday show, the South Portland couple left Maine for New Jersey and a family holiday. The multi-vehicle accident occurred as they headed west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, near Charlton.

Tony, who was driving, lost his left leg when the couple’s Toyota Camry was struck by a truck; surgeons saved the other leg. He suffered broken ribs, facial fractures and other injuries, and was in a coma in a Worcester hospital for days after the accident, then incoherent for weeks.


Tony is now recovering in a rehabilitation hospital near a sister’s home in New Jersey. He’s learning to walk, and has begun communicating with friends in Portland, offering hopeful, emotional messages and thanks.

Susan’s body was cremated in Massachusetts a few days after the accident. Her memorial service is on hold until after her husband recovers, so he can plan and participate in the service.

The recovery is long term, for Tony and the Portland theater community.

The tragedy is “devastating for everybody,” said Daniel Burson, who was to direct the Reillys in “Anna Christie” this week. “Tony and Susan have such big hearts and such a big presence in Portland theater. It’s tough to think about the Portland scene without them.”


Theater folks work in small circles, with numerous intersections. The Reillys were at the center of many of those intersections. Likewise, theater was the center of their two-decade marriage. They did not have children. Instead, they produced interesting and unusual plays with characters that actors wanted to portray, and had fun doing it. Perhaps most important, they specialized in Irish theater, a subgenre defined sometimes by ribald plot lines and always by the fervor of its purveyors.


They began building their presence in Portland in 1997, arriving from New York full of ambition, with a business plan and an abundance of every successful producer’s most valuable assets: vision and passion. First they produced a single play, an original piece, to gauge the market. After a year, they went back to New York and plotted their future, confident that Portland was a promising location because of its thriving theater scene and Irish heritage.

Christine Louise Marshall, artistic director for Mad Horse Theater

Christine Louise Marshall, artistic director for Mad Horse Theatre

The Reillys moved to Maine in 2003, buying a house just across the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland. They were noticed right away within the theater community, and in 10-plus seasons they produced nearly three dozen plays. Susan was deftly funny, vulnerable and capable of deep pathos. Tony was grounded and authentic, and acted with a pace that commanded attention. She took care of the business side of their American Irish Repertory Ensemble while working as a freelance writer. Tony gave all of his attention to the creative side of the theater.

“AIRE was theirs,” said Christine Louise Marshall, artistic director at Mad Horse Theatre Company. “They gave birth to it, they nurtured it and made it a beautiful thing.”


Last season’s holiday show, “A Celtic Christmas,” ran over two weekends in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage and involved two casts of children. Youthful casts added a layer of chaos, and “A Celtic Christmas” exhausted the Reillys.

The final show was on Sunday, Dec. 21. The Reillys were tired. They were ready for a vacation.


Assisting that day was AIRE board member Al Aucella, who answered Susan’s request for help taking tickets and seating people. The show was sold out, and Susan warned Aucella about the hectic moments just before the house goes dark. People show up at once and jostle for the final seats, she told him excitedly. “She kept using the word ‘scrum’ – ‘It’s going to be a scrum today, it’s going to be a scrum,’ ” Aucella recalled.

Minutes before curtain, Tony showed up at the front of the house. He was scheduled to go on, but here he was with a broom, sweeping the floor between the seats and the stage, talking to folks and bellowing.

When one person couldn’t find the seats she saved for her parents, Tony handled it. “I’ll move these coats. I know these people,” he said. Tony guided a woman in a wheelchair into the theater and seated her.

Al Aucella, a board member for the Reillys’ theater company.

Al Aucella, a board member for the Reillys’ theater company.


What impressed Aucella wasn’t that Tony worked the front of the house before going on stage, although that got his attention. It was that Tony seemed to know everyone who came through the door.

The next day, the Reillys were back in the theater. As part of their set for “A Celtic Christmas,” they had painted the stage floor a light color. They were obligated to return the floor to the original color as part of their rental agreement, and that meant Monday was a workday.


“They were in great spirits,” recalled Andrew Harris, technical director at Portland Stage. Harris served as a liaison to AIRE to ensure the theater company had what it needed from Portland Stage during the Christmas play. As a gesture of appreciation for Harris’ efforts, the Reillys gave him a bottle or Jameson Irish whiskey after they finished their work at the theater.

The bottle remains unopened.


The accident occurred about 1:40 p.m. the next day at mile marker 79 in the westbound lane of the turnpike, according to the Massachusetts State Police. The Reillys were bound for the home of one of Tony’s sisters in Westfield, New Jersey, where they would spend the holidays.

They were headed west, presumably with the intention of exiting onto Interstate 84 south through Connecticut and into metro New York. Especially during heavy travel times, traffic backs up as vehicles slow to exit. The Reillys’ sedan was among three vehicles involved in the initial accident, along with a tractor-trailer and an SUV. After that impact, a second tractor-trailer crashed into the Reillys’ car.

Tony was thrown from the vehicle. Susan was trapped inside. The tractor-trailer flipped on its side. The road was closed for hours, and traffic backed up more than 14 miles during one of the busiest travel days of the holiday.


Both were taken to UMass Memorial Hospital in Worcester, where Susan was declared dead. In the initial confusion, both Susan and Tony were presumed dead. It wasn’t until the next morning that people in Maine learned that Massachusetts’ authorities had made a mistake.

Tony was badly injured and might not survive. But he was alive. Information about a double-fatality on the Mass Pike had been reported in various media, and was later corrected. But for a few hours, people in Portland mourned both of their friends.

“We were stunned – both times,” Aucella said. “We were sad and stunned, and then when we heard that Tony was alive we were happy, but I can’t say it was ecstasy. We were in shock.”


The grief of people who know the Reillys as friends is private. The loss for others, who might know the Reillys from a seat in the audience, is playing out in public this winter. Other theater companies have opened a dozen or so plays in Portland since the accident, and many actors dedicated performances to the Reillys. There have been quiet moments on stage, unexpected tears and unintended pauses when actors had to catch themselves.

It’s been a difficult winter for friends like Aucella, who joined the AIRE board as an adviser because of his expertise in finances. Within 24 hours of the accident, he and his fellow board members were thrust in the middle of the crisis, facing urgent fiduciary decisions and minor mundane needs, from canceling an upcoming theater rental to locating a password to update a website.


“I wish Susan could see what a job we were doing,” Aucella said, invoking her droll humor. “She always wanted us to get more active. I just wish this wasn’t the way.”


It’s been especially hard for David Butler, a fellow actor who shares a love of theater and all things Irish. He and his wife, Maureen, befriended the Reillys soon after they moved to Maine. The Butlers acted in AIRE shows, and AIRE later produced a play that David Butler wrote, “The Grand O’Neal.”

Butler also happens to be a pastor, and used his ministerial skills to establish reliable communication among friends of the Reillys in Maine, their families in New Jersey and the hospital in Massachusetts. When information was unreliable and scarce, Butler drove to Worcester to see for himself. When friends gathered to toast Susan at an Irish wake, Butler led the service. He became a source of information and comfort.

The loss, he said, is hard to explain. It’s more than a play or a theater company or even an actress. It’s all that, and more.

“Susan was just such a delight,” Butler said. “It’s true of both of them, they could find humor in serious roles because they have a lightness of spirit that comes across on stage and in everything they do.”


Actor Paul Haley

Actor Paul Haley

Paul Haley, a trusted collaborator and confidant, dined with the Reillys the night before they left Portland for their holiday vacation. He faced his grief on stage, starring in Good Theater’s “Regrets Only” and delivering one line each night about personal loss that never stopped resonating as something much more than a line from a play.

“On stage and off, there was no day and no night when thoughts of my friends were entirely separate or stilled below the surface,” Haley said.


AIRE may continue, depending on Tony’s recovery.

Friends are looking forward to June 16 and the annual Bloomsday celebration of Irish writer James Joyce. AIRE usually marked it with a play or reading. If things align, perhaps Tony will be back in Portland by then, and maybe the community can finally hold a proper memorial for Susan.

That’s the hope.

Tony hasn’t said much about his plans. Getting better physically and learning to live without the woman he loves are his priorities, his family said. On the advice of lawyers, he declined to talk about the accident. He has tried to stay off social media, as well. Other than a statement from Tony’s and Susan’s families, he has communicated with a few friends by phone.

“I’m doing OK,” he said in a message to a reporter that included both laughter and tears. “But it’s going to be a long haul. I’ll see you when the snow melts, I think.”

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