When you are an under-employed actor teaching traffic safety to 5-year-olds and your octogenarian boss makes a pass at you, it’s not surprising to feel as if life is on a rather downward spiral.
Irish-born stage and screen actor Johnny O’Callaghan found himself in that dismal place nearly seven years ago. Most widely known as “Niam” on the Syfy channel series “Stargate Atlantis,” O’Callaghan had lost his part-time teaching job, his personal life was a mess, and he was sweating out a lull between acting jobs.
When a friend extended a last-minute invitation to help her film a documentary about a struggling orphanage in the small town of Kasese in Uganda, something just said, “go,” O’Callaghan said.
Following that impulse, O’Callaghan found the little boy who became his adopted son — and in the process, found himself.
O’Callaghan relates his adventure toward healing and unexpected fatherhood in “Who’s Your Daddy?,” his well-received, seriocomic and frankly adult solo show enjoying an extended run at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank through Feb. 19.
Directed by Tom Ormeny, “Who’s Your Daddy?” is an uncensored and darkly funny account of dissipation, despair and salvation — and of a laborious, nine-month international adoption fraught with bureaucratic roadblocks and dubious fees.
When Ormeny and Maria Gobetti, the Victory’s co-founders and co-artistic directors, heard O’Callaghan give a private reading of the play, they knew that they wanted it for their stage, although it would be a first for the theater, which in its 32-year-history had never done a solo show.
“Often the writing is not up to the performer; they are hard to direct, and you can’t send in the troops to spice things up,” Gobetti explained. “Tom and Johnny really worked on transitions and tone a lot.” But, she said, “we heard Johnny read it in a living room, fell in love with it and decided then and there to do it.”
“I had never really talked about how absurd and crazy that nine months was,” said O’Callaghan, whose desire to tell his story was partly in response to assumptions some made about actors and interracial parenthood, fueled by criticism leveled at high-profile adoptions by Angelina Jolie and Madonna.
Prior to having his eyes opened by a country long ravaged by civil war, “I had been navel gazing for a long time in Hollywood,” O’Callaghan said. “I was very privileged, but totally unaware of the privilege in a way. So Uganda was a bit of a shock: the smells, the insects, the sense of danger, the sense that anything could happen.”
At the impoverished orphanage, children in ragged hand-me-downs made toys out of trash, “and all of a sudden, I couldn’t feel sorry for myself anymore. It was only getting out of the country and taking care of others that I felt I could breathe again. But I certainly didn’t go there to be a parent.”
Then O’Callaghan met 3-year-old Benson. The mutual bond was immediate, he said. “It was just, ‘Oh, this is my son.’“
In his play, O’Callaghan imagines the lengthy adoption process of his now nearly 10-year-old, happy, healthy son as akin to a pregnancy. “I try to look at the funny side of life, and I did find that I was feeling very emotional.” Nine months later, “I come back to L.A. and I’m a single parent, I’m raising him, getting him into a preschool and dealing with life. In a sense, it was like I’d given birth to him. I don’t know if all adopted parents feel like that or not.”
At the time, he added, “I was not an activist in any way. I was very clear that I just wanted to bring my son home.” O’Callaghan now encourages others to adopt and is glad if he is able to “help people see that gay people can be good parents, and I think it’s great if the play can teach or help in any way.”
Reaction to “Who’s Your Daddy?” — which has attracted interest as a potential film — has been overwhelmingly positive, even among more conservative audiences, O’Callaghan said. “What’s beautiful is that people go on the journey with me. They have come on stage and hugged me at the curtain call, which has never happened to me before. So there is a cathartic effect, maybe. And maybe the laughter lets you in.”
In addition to his “Stargate Atlantis” turn, O’Callaghan, who holds citizenship in the U.S., Ireland and Canada, has chalked up numerous other TV, indie film and stage roles. In Los Angeles, he starred in “Lonesome West” at the Odyssey Theatre and has performed regularly with California Artists Radio Theatre. His New York theater credits include “Ladies and Gents,” performed in restrooms in Central Park; the U.S. premiere of Conor McPherson’s one-man show, “Rum & Vodka”; “Howie the Rookie” by Mark O’Rowe; and the recurring role of Stephen Dedalus in “Bloomsday” on Broadway.
O’Callaghan’s nomadic life as an actor was a family affair when his son was a preschooler. To provide a more rooted existence, O’Callaghan, who has a degree in computer science, returned to school for a master’s in psychology. He now divides his time between acting and a private practice in meditation therapy. “I’m less drawn to doing work just for the hell of it now. I want to just follow the heart.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes regularly on theater and the arts for Marquee.
WHAT: “Who’s Your Daddy?”
WHERE: Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 19. Running time: 90 minutes.
CONTACT: (818) 841-5422. www.thevictorytheatrecentre.org