Niall Cunningham’s college application may not have been accepted by Northwestern University, but the 22-year-old actor modestly says “it all kind of worked out for the best”— which certainly is an understatement.
Not only is the Brooklyn native currently starring on the main stage at the Goodman Theatre in a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness,” but he’s also a regular on the hit CBS series “Life in Pieces,” recently renewed for a third season.
“Actually, my sister [Delia Cunningham] is going to Northwestern, starting in the fall,” said the actor.
Other than his visit to the Northwestern campus several years ago, Cunningham’s job here playing Richard in “Ah, Wilderness” is “my first real chance to get to know this city,” noting all of the cast members have given him good tips on where to go and what to see. “That includes even those who are not from Chicago, because they have such strong ties to the city because of having acted here so much.”
Calling himself the “only complete foreigner” in the cast, Cunningham said along with our usual popular attractions like the Art Institute and many great restaurants, “my really favorite part of getting to know Chicago is to see what a sense of closeness exists here in the theater community. There is such support among everyone for others; it’s really inspirational for me as an actor.”
What has been intriguing about “Ah, Wilderness” is how “every single audience seems to pick up on different lines or different scenes, where they react more intensely. You can absolutely sense it from the people in the audience — even if they don’t laugh or clap or react in some other outgoing way. Sometimes you’ll just feel a sense of intensity that is communicated by the audience — right up to us on stage.”
Cunningham loves playing Richard, mainly because he represents a number of universal themes, even in a play set in 1906. “Let’s face it, his rebelliousness, his coming-of-age issues, his awkwardness with the opposite sex — those are all things people in 2017 can still relate to.”
The actor laughed as he revealed his own parents had just seen him in the play for the first time a few days earlier. “I haven’t really had the chance to discuss it with them in-depth, but I’m sure we will soon remember some of my uglier moments, from 6th through 8th grades. All of those bad times derived, for the most part, from failed relationships at school!”
As for his big break in “Life in Pieces,” Cunningham obviously feels very grateful to be part of an ensemble “that is so supportive — like the actors at the Goodman.” He’s convinced “I would not have had this great opportunity to be in ‘Ah, Wilderness,’ if not for that [TV] show. … I’m really looking forward to going back to start work on the show in August.”
While his character of Tyler on “Life in Pieces” is quite different from the more innocent Richard in “Ah, Wilderness,” Cunningham sees a bit of similarity to the two roles.
“Both come to learn that they don’t have to worry about being right all the time. They also learn that it’s important to surround themselves with positivity and relationships that are good. That’s a life lesson there in both cases.”