Eugene O’Neill, an American master playwright, is back in the limelight

Oh, no, no. Not Eugene O’Neill. Isn’t he the tortured one who wrote all those long, tortured plays about all those tortured people from tortured families that resembled his own tortured clan?

Fess up: A thought similar to this occurs as you learn that two of Washington’s premier theaters — Arena Stage and Shakespeare Theatre Company — along with some smaller local and out-of-town groups, are embarking on a wide-ranging measure of the artistry of the playwright whose work forms the backbone of American drama.

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.

Continuing struggle

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.

The painstaking attention is worthwhile to Kahn, because, as he and many others see it, O’Neill is the ignition key for American theater, the leader of the pack that includes Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. O’Neill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama four times (for “Beyond the Horizon,” “Anna Christie,” “Strange Interlude” and “Long Day’s Journey”) and, uniquely among American playwrights, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1936.

Reading over his works, great and small, beginning with some of the one-act sea plays he wrote between 1913 and 1917, and up through the epic “Long Day’s Journey” — written in the late 1930s but not produced until three years after his death — one can almost feel O’Neill inventing serious American drama as he went along. (Having no major American antecedents to draw on, O’Neill was deeply influenced by Norway’s Henrik Ibsen.) His obsessive exploration of the mythic ache in the belly of the American family, evident in such dark, classical Greek-inspired works as “Mourning Becomes Electra” and “Desire Under the Elms,” would establish the household play as the template for much of what we now consider the American classics, from “The Glass Menagerie” to “Death of a Salesman.” (At his death, O’Neill left incomplete a planned 11-play cycle on the American family, of which only “A Touch of the Poet” and “More Stately Mansions” are extant.)

“I suppose it’s O’Neill for me because his idea was so big,” Kahn says, explaining why he thinks the dramatist earns first-among-equals status. “His aspiration sometimes beat his ability and that’s because of the time he was writing, too. But for me, he’s a giant giant.”

“It feels like he believed in us, or he believed that the theater could do things that no other place could, with an incredible emotional side, with formal aggressiveness,” says Derek Goldman, a theater professor at Georgetown University and artistic director of its Davis Performing Arts Center, who will be presenting at the festival a new biographical piece about O’Neill’s affinity for the tragic arcs of Greek drama.

Comedy and drama

Three plays will serve as festival hubs; Kahn’s “Strange Interlude” is his company’s chief contribution. Arena will present “Long Day’s Journey,” under the direction of Robin Phillips, former artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, with Helen Carey as the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone and Peter Michael Goetz playing her penny-pinching actor-husband, James. It begins performances later this month.

The third big production is a piece regarded as the flip side of “Journey”: “Ah, Wilderness!” a ruefully warm family comedy that O’Neill is reported to have written, in part, to prove that he could be trusted to apply lighter brush strokes. The play, directed by Kyle Donnelly, begins previews Friday on Arena’s Fichandler Stage, with Rick Foucheux and Nancy Robinette as the heads of a robust, loving Connecticut brood at the turn of the 20th century.

Unlike its comprehensive festival last year, in which Arena sought the aid of a gallery of local companies for staged readings of all of Edward Albee’s plays, this event comes together by chance: Molly Smith, Arena’s artistic director, says that the timing of the Arena and Shakespeare examinations of O’Neill was purely coincidental. It’s hard for that reason to identify the motivating core. Why these particular plays? Kahn, who’d had success with “Mourning Becomes Electra,” long wanted to tackle “Interlude” because, he says wryly, he likes to take on impossible tasks. And Smith and company viewed “Journey” and “Wilderness” as a good pair, envisioning them set in the same New London house.

Phillips, though, says that he had initially been asked to direct “Desire Under the Elms,” and later the selection was switched to “Journey.” The takeaway seems to be that given the playwright’s output, the massive scale of his plays, any attempt at a definitive survey might drain away years, coffers, even sanity. (Meanwhile, another of O’Neill’s crowning achievements, “The Iceman Cometh,” begins previews April 21 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre under Robert Falls’s direction, with a cast led by Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.)

Over the course of the festival, the playwright will be showcased in adaptations such as Goldman’s four-day workshop production of “Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks” (April 26-29) and staged readings, such as Taffety Punk’s all-female version of “Anna Christie” (March 17-18). Foucheux will direct readings April 11 -12 of four of the extended sketchlike sea plays — “The Moon of the Caribbees,” “In the Zone,” “The Long Voyage Home” and “Bound East for Cardiff.” To give them maritime flavor, they will be staged in the riverside Capital Yacht Club.

“The way he was able to get a handle on his feelings in these plays — he had full access to them,” Foucheux says, of why he chose the early works, which are vividly informed by O’Neill’s youthful days as a merchant seaman. For this Washington actor, who appeared in a highly regarded 2009 revival of O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones” at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre, the works are a reminder of the theatrical fundamentals.

“It’s enough to be in love,” Foucheux says. “You don’t need a car crash. All you need is deeply felt emotion.”

This does not mean O’Neill is fundamentally easy. Two current revivals of his work illustrate the hazards in trying to animate his sometimes overwrought language and plotting. The Irish Rep’s New York follow-up to “Emperor Jones,” “Beyond the Horizon,” for example, manages only to illuminate how wooden the archetypes can seem in this early piece. Meanwhile, at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, an idiosyncratically dry mounting of three sea plays by the experimental director Richard Maxwell proves to be a folly of mismatched intentions and artistic temperaments.

Still, there are leavening possibilities in the merger of the minds of a granddaddy of drama and those who look up to him many generations later. One sees lots of potential for one of the more jocular entries in the festival: The irreverent New York Neo-Futurists are bringing their acted piece, “The Complete and Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill,” to Arena’s Kogod Cradle, April 19-22.

It’s helpful to know that O’Neill added to his scripts some of the most compulsively — even absurdly — detailed stage directions in the annals of theater history. To give you an idea: In his “Strange Interlude” script, he says of the character of Charles Marsden: “His face is too long for its width, his nose is high and narrow, his forehead broad, his mild blue eyes those of a dreamy self-analyst, his thin lips ironical and a bit sad.”

Pity the poor casting director — not to mention the brown-eyed actor. Christopher Loar, who adapted the stage directions from several early O’Neill plays, says he’s trying to show that what’s in the mind of a playwright doesn’t always translate easily to the practical needs of the stage. And as this festival wants us to remember, too, even a tortured master should be viewed as merely mortal.

Eugene O’Neill Festival

Friday to May 6 at area theaters.
More information at www.arenastage.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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