Sharing Coffee, Baring Souls // by Ryan Spahn
Actor Ryan Spahn shares a vulnerable moment with Marin Ireland months before sharing the stage.
August 30th. 2017. A breezy afternoon. A Tuesday. A Wednesday? Maybe it was a Thursday. I was at Gregory’s Coffee. The one on the east side of 9th Avenue. I was alone. Having a bit of a hard day. Feeling kinda sad. The Daily was blasting through my AirPods. Michael Barbaro was working overtime trying to cheer me up.
From behind, I saw a hand. A wave. A gesture. Unobtrusive. Delicate. I paused. Was this wave directed at me? Hmmmmm. I opted not to engage.
I heard a voice. I def heard a voice. It was quiet. Faint.
The blur of my lonely soft gaze came into focus.
“Hey, Ryan. It’s Marin. Marin Ireland.”
Of course. I’m such a dick.
Full disclosure: I didn’t know Marin. I mean, I knew her. From afar. We had a handful of mutual friends. Rubbed elbows at theatre events. But we hadn’t, like, exchanged digits. We were the ‘oh-hey-nice-to-see-you’ kinda friends. Acquaintances.
“Hey,” I said with a smile. “How are you?”
“I’m sorry for ignoring you. I was in my own world.”
Marin nodded. She looked at her feet. “Oh, it’s fine. I was the creeper trying to get your attention.”
“No, no. You’re not a creeper. I was being an asshole.”
She laughed. I laughed. We smiled. And then, almost in an instant, our guards completely faded away. It was as if five years of friendship sped through our bodies and suddenly, we were these old pals running into each other in Hell’s Kitchen. Arguably, we were.
“What are you up to?” I asked.
“Um…not much. I finished recording this book on tape I’m narrating. And…um…I don’t really have any plans for the rest of the day…what about you?”
“I got nothing.” Feeling vulnerable, I asked, “Would you be up for taking a walk? I could use a friend.”
“I’d love that. I’ve had a rough morning.” Marin flushed with color, clearly empathizing with where I was emotionally.
We exited Gregory’s Coffee and headed up 9th Avenue. We began talking, rather quickly. For privacy reasons, I’m not gonna share the intimate details of our conversation. We walked for about an hour. Through Times Square. Passing the Naked Cowboy. Taking in the smells of the roasting peanuts. We shared deep and personal stories. Tears were shed. By both of us. It was natural. Loving. Special. An hour I have never forgotten.
I walked Marin to the C Train. We hugged. “Today is my birthday,” she said. “And this was a wonderful way to spend it.”
“Happy birthday, Marin. This was a great afternoon.”
She descended into the subway. We didn’t exchange phone numbers. We never followed each other on socials. We left this moment as it was. Pure and simple.
Fast-forward to October 27th. 2017. I received an e-mail from Jack Cummings III, the stalwart director who runs Transport Group. He wrote, “Hey, Ryan. Do you know Summer and Smoke?”
“I do. I love that play. Tennessee Williams is my favorite.”
For those of you who don’t know Summer and Smoke, Wikipedia’s elevator pitch is: A preacher’s daughter (Alma) lusts for a doctor’s son (John) circa 1916 Mississippi. Okay, LOL. Summer and Smoke is about way more than that. It’s this brilliant gothic Southern masterpiece. Everything is lustful and emotional and sweaty and oh-so-Williams.
“Ryan, Transport Group will run Summer and Smoke from March until May at Classic Stage Company. We’re doing a co-pro. I’d like for you to play Archie Kramer. The traveling salesman. He’s in the beautiful final scene of the play. The one with Alma.”
“Wow. I’ll do it. For sure. No question. Thanks for thinking of me. Who is playing Alma?”
Fast-forward to March. 2018. Summer and Smoke is now deep into rehearsals. Or rather, Marin and Nathan Darrow, who played John, are. They rehearsed for two weeks prior to the supporting cast showing up. I arrived with my backpack and pens.
“Hey, Ryan. It’s good to see you.”
“You too, Marin.”
We smiled. Hugged. There wasn’t much fanfare to our reunion. I wasn’t expecting there to be. I didn’t know what I was expecting. We got on our feet pretty quickly. Jack doesn’t waste time. It’s what makes him so good.
“You two want to just go for it? See what happens naturally?”
“Sure,” Marin said. “You okay with that, Ryan?”
Marin placed her script on the nearby chair. I did the same. Jack sat down. So did the rest of the company. The stage was marked out on the black floor with white tape. Marin began walking around the edge of the tape. I did the same, but in the other direction. I eyed her like a hawk. She allowed me to stare. The room immediately sensed the tension between us; a tension not dissimilar to what we’d experienced at Gregory’s Coffee.
Marin took the first step onto the marked stage. I followed her. She was leading, but she never took her attention off me. I walked slowly behind. Ever the student. Marin stopped in front of the upstage fountain. I stopped a few feet away. She dipped her toe delicately into the water. And then, with a shyness reminiscent of our chance encounter five months ago, Marin spoke the first line of the scene, “The water — is — cool.” Marin blushed. Rather, Alma blushed. I smirked. Rather, Archie smirked.
The rest of the scene plays out in this delicate give-and-take between two lost souls hunting for connection. For Alma, Archie is a saving grace. For Archie, I’d argue Alma saves him, too.
Marin and I finished our rehearsal and Jack said, “There is clearly something pure going on between you two. I don’t want to mess with it.” Actors are called to mirror life and sometimes, if you’re lucky, that can happen with total aplomb.
Summer and Smoke opened to great acclaim, garnering a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Revival of a Play and Marin Ireland received a Drama League Award nomination for Distinguished Performance.
Marin and I have remained steady friends. We leaned on each other during the pandemic. Sharing in the loss of theatre. We formed an online collective called “The Commissary.” She starred in my pandemic movie Nora Highland. I attended her glorious return to the boards in Morning Sun.
Tennessee Williams wrote a play that captures the loneliness in all of us. Summer and Smoke highlights the overwhelming need that humans have to lean on others when we’re in pain. No matter the person. Even acquaintances in coffee shops.
We must watch. Be alert. Listen. Otherwise, we’ll miss each other.
About the author:
Ryan Spahn is an actor and writer originally from Detroit. Off-Broadway: Lessons in Survival, Mr. Toole, How To Load A Musket, Moscow x6, Daniel’s Husband, Summer & Smoke, Still at Risk, Exit Strategy, Gloria. Regional: Hamlet, Tribes, Tape, End Days, Stupid Kids. Film: The Raging Heart of Maggie Acker, Shirley, Abducted, Nora Highland (writer/director), He’s Way More Famous Than You (co-writer), Grantham & Rose (writer), Woven (co-writer). Television: Chicago P.D., Modern Love, The Bite, The Blacklist. Training: The Juilliard School. Ryan has been published by Rotten Tomatoes, Metro Weekly, IntoMore, American Theatre Magazine, and USA Today.