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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
O'Neill, by French-Canadian playwright Anne Legault takes place in Eugene O'Neill's California home where his last wife, Carlotta fiercely guards his fragile health and privacy. The time is 1940 and the fifty-two-year old playwright is struggling with his most autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. Even though he has already declared he would not allow its publication until after his death, he is having a hard time with these characters out of his own past.
The whose life is it anyway issue is one that many writers have grappled with (A. R. Guerney's Cocktail Party comes to mind). Ms. Legault herself could have built her play based on her own experience, her overtly biographical first play having brought surprising reactions from her family. Since O'Neill is more interesting than a relatively unknown playwright, you can't blame her for deciding to explore the boundaries between autobiography, fiction and reality through O'Neill. And so her play has O'Neill time travel between two worlds: The first, his current life in California with his controlling wife Carlotta, plus his visiting children by his ex-wife to whom he's not been much of a father. Second, his past where the ghosts of his past are fighting his efforts to make them characters in Long Day's Journey Into Night. These ghosts include his compulsively stingy actor father, his opium addicted mother, his alcoholic older brother, the dead brother after whom he was named, as well as his own youthful self.
It's an intriguing idea and with Jason Sturm's bi-level set which puts the dead on a small platform from which the characters can enter O'Neill's study, the convergence of real and imagined works quite well. My problem with Ms. Legault's clever conceit is that it assumes that her audience is familiar with Long Day's Journey and the outlines of O'Neill's life. They may well be, but the test of the broader appeal of a work such as this is that it must stand on its own, with or without any previous experience with the fictionalized central character, his work or his family history.
Legault's O'Neill does not meet this test. It's not that it's particularly hard to understand the plot's outline: a troubled writer, a visit from his young adult children from a previous marriage who don't get along with his possessive wife, and the voices of the dead demanding to have their say over how they will be portrayed. The problem is that those who come to O'Neill unprepared will miss the connections -- like a scene where his daughter Oona discovers her grandmother's frayed wedding gown, the same gown which figured so crucially in one of Long Day's most wrenching scenes. In the same way, O'Neill's references to Charlie Chaplin and Oona's expressed dreams about marrying an older man from the film world will have little meaning to anyone unaware that Oona O'Neill married a middle-aged Charles Chaplin when she was twenty.
I'll refrain from citing further chapter and verse, though I could go on. Suffice it to say, audiences who haven't seen Long Day's Journey should dip into a reading copy if they want to enjoy this play which is so tightly linked to its evolution and characters. (Links to two versions we've reviewed in recent seasons can be found in our backgrounder on O'Neill). At minimum, they should plan to arrive at the Blue Heron Arts Center with plenty of time to study the extensive and interestingexhibit in the lobby.
O'Neill enthusiasts, who I suspect will constitute most of the audience for this limited run, will find much to like about Legault's dramatized faction as well as a fair number of quibbles. Nicholas Stannard is rather one-note as the tortured playwright while Margaret Reed as Carlotta is appropriately loving and cold as called for. The most endearing character on the "real world" part of the stage is Greta Storace as the sweet, sensitive young Ooona. The best performances come from the ghost characters, with Evan Thompson rendering a strong portraits, of James O'Neill Sr. The script is at its best during moments between him and his living son; for example, when Eugene tells him that he won the Nobel Prize which also brought $40, 000, he snaps: "You can tell me about it without a price tag. I'm a miser, not an imbecile." Wayne Maugans is also excellent as Jamie O'Neill.
The play develops more as a chess game than a conventional plot. It's suspense lies in whether the ghostly chess pieces can move to the writer's study long enough to help him through his writer's block -- and then moved back to their place and altogether off the chessboard. It's not a particular fast-paced chess game, an interesting one.
CurtainUp's Playwright's Album feature on O'Neill -- with background on O'Neill's life and career and links to plays we've reviewed, including two productions of Long Day's Journey Into Night.