Eugene O’Neill’s dog Blemie gets a monologue at the end of “Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks,” a workshop project in Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle that’s part of the ongoing O’Neill festival. Blemie is offering his last will and testament to console what are sure to be his heartsick owners.
That sort of life-in-death moment is a lot of what writer-adapter and director Derek Goldman explores in his 75-minute excursion, which his program note aptly describes as a prism. Actors holding lanterns emerge through the fog and offer snippets from plays and biographical sources, charting the great playwright’s fraught family life, the serious turn he took away from his famous father’s heroic but one-note theatrical career, and his philosophy about life and drama.
The theme of masks ripples through the work — the allure of the Greeks for O’Neill, and the various guises (even that of a beloved dog) that O’Neill believed we could put on to reveal ourselves more fully.
Goldman’s prismatic form makes his thrust a little elusive at times, but the atmosphere is rich — not just with stage fog, low lights, live music and sound effects performed by Roc Lee, but with O’Neill’s fierce yet tender writings. The quest for some essential facet of the legendary writer is clear enough, and inevitably, we get the much-repeated line about O’Neill’s interest not in the relations between man and man but between man and God.
Goldman teaches at Georgetown University, which has partnered with Arena several times, and this production puts esteemed local actor Rick Foucheux (late of Arena’s marvelous “Ah, Wilderness!”) with a handful of student actors. “Begotten” is a fine exercise to attach to this festival, and the evening’s centerpiece performance of the sea play “Fog,” a dialogue in a lifeboat between a poet and a businessman, is polished enough to make you wish for a full evening of O’Neill’s short plays.
Written, adapted and directed by Derek Goldman. Scenic design, Jamie Gahlon; lights, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Debra Kim Sevigny; movement/mask consultant, Karin Abromaitis. With Clark Young, Vivian Cook, Addison Williams and Alexandra Waldon. Through Sunday at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.