History comes to life in Philly: Actress Johanna Dunphy plays the role of Margaret McKivan in the Independence After Hours tours. Sponsored by Historic Philadelphia Inc., the tours offer a three-course dinner inspired by colonial recipes followed by a private walk to Independence Hall. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO
On a recent Tuesday evening, members of a tour group sat down to dine in a private room at the City Tavern in Old City.
It was the start of a tour sponsored by Historic Philadelphia Inc. called Independence After Hours, which would transport them back to July 4, 1776.
It included a three-course dinner inspired by colonial recipes. But before the first course was served, a breathless John Dunlap entered the room. He was a printer who was looking for Thomas Jefferson to bring him the draft of “an important document.”
He asked the woman who was waiting on tables that evening if she knew his whereabouts — and they began a conversation. She was Margaret McKivan, who came to Philadelphia from Ireland.
“She’s an indentured servant but she’s also a bold woman who speaks her mind,” said Johanna Dunphy.
The Wyncote actress plays the role of McKivan several times each week. And she does it with zest. Dressed in full colonial attire — including a long dress, apron and cap on her head, Dunphy certainly looks the part of McKivan. And with the Irish lilt she has perfected for this role, she sounds it, too.
Both McKivan and Dunlap were actual people who lived in colonial Philadelphia. Dunlap printed the first copy of the Declaration of Independence, using Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten copy.
And McKivan sailed from Belfast to Philadelphia in 1773. She probably did wait on tables at the City Tavern, where she must have overheard many political discussions.
“She’s a witness to all the talk about politics,” said Dunphy. “And when John Dunlap shows up, she speaks her mind. She represents the voice of people who were usually unheard.”
But she is certainly heard when the diners are at the tavern. Sometimes, the groups especially respond to McKivan’s feistiness.
“They root for her, and I respond to their enthusiasm,” said Dunphy.
Both McKivan and Dunlap appear several times throughout the dinner — and they never step out of character. The actors use a script, but are free to go off-script when it’s suitable.
“We try to let history come to life,” said Dunphy.
When dinner ends, the group takes a short walk to Independence Hall. Inside, they have the privilege of seeing this historic site without crowds of tourists. Instead, they listen as actors playing Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Ben Franklin engage in informal debate about the wording of the Declaration of Independence.
Dunphy is not part of this segment of the tour: No woman would have been part of this political discussion. But McKivan is certainly a lively presence at the tavern.
“I love this role because I get to play a strong woman and be part of history,” said Dunphy.
She is now in her fourth season with Historic Philadelphia. The organization presents a wide range of programs, from the free Once Upon a Nation storytelling benches throughout the historic area to ticketed events such as Independence After Dark.
The versatile Dunphy has taken part in the storytelling benches, too; for instance, she was at the bench outside the Betsy Ross House in her first season in 2009. She’s had other storytelling roles, too. But she’s played Margaret McKivan for all four seasons that she’s participated in the programs.
She began in 2009, and returned in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Then came a break while she attended graduate school at the University of Tennessee and earned a master’s degree in acting.
She returned to Philadelphia this past May and eagerly rejoined Historic Philadelphia Inc.
All participants must first pass an audition, and then in May, they attend the “Benstitute,” a three-week intensive orientation. Here, they get a cram course in Philadelphia colonial history as well as preparation for their roles. This summer, her fourth with the program, Dunphy is just as enthusiastic as when she started.
“I love doing this!” she enthused. “I’m challenging myself as a performer, and that’s important to me. And I’ve always loved Philadelphia, so it’s great to be part of bringing its history to life.” ••
Tickets are required for the Independence after Hours tour, which continues through Oct. 25. For information, visit www.historicphiladelphia.org.