The Eugene O’Neill Festival, based at Arena’s Mead Center for American Theater from Friday until May 6, hopes to convince you that O’Neill is more than the sum of his well-documented anguishes — not that pain isn’t the vital, moldable, emotional clay of great theater. Through a gallery of full-scale productions, play readings, lectures, exhibits and panel discussions (151 events in all), the festival will lay out the case for an ongoing investigation of what moved this theater lion to growl so prolifically through 46 published plays. And it will also address the question of why every generation of theatergoers must return to this influential source, if one is going to understand how modern theater came to be.
For O’Neill was not simply a chronicler of profound misery, a conclusion a casual observer might draw from his masterpiece and the work for which he’s best known, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” — which will be one of the cornerstone pieces of the festival. This playwright also happened to be a fierce dramatic optimist, a tireless change-up pitcher always looking for a new way to deliver a story to the stage. Themes, moods, even characters recur, and yet the packaging always contains surprises: Sample, if you will, the wild conceit of “Strange Interlude” — another of the festival’s full-run plays — in which characters not only speak their lines but also keep up a running aria of often self-contradictory inner thoughts.
If biographers have offered ample evidence over the years of O’Neill’s lifelong battle with his demons — he died in 1953 at the age of 65, embittered at the end by the physical infirmity robbing him of the ability to write — the festival is an indication of our continuing struggle with his work. Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director, spent six months wrestling with the text of 1928’s “Strange Interlude”: originally running more than five hours (with a dinner break), the play is the multifaceted psychological portrait of a woman, Nina (portrayed here by Francesca Faridany), and the men who seek to possess her.
At its full length and with the characters’ endless, circuitous asides, the piece is considered too protracted for a modern audience. So, with the O’Neill estate’s blessing, Kahn set about paring it down. (In an interview, Kahn wouldn’t commit to a final running time, but it sounds as if the production, when it begins performances March 27 at Sidney Harman Hall, might be well more than three hours.) In rehearsals, he’s taken things out and put other passages back in, as he agonizingly tries to compress without doing harm to O’Neill’s grand design.