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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 7


The O誰eill Festival at the Mead Center
for the Performing Arts in Washington

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer
St. John痴 University

Ah, Wilderness!, directed by Kyle Donnelly. Arena Stage, Washington, DC, March 9 - April 8, 2012.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Robin Phillips. Arena Stage, Washington, DC, March 30 - May 6, 2012.

A very exciting event in Washington, D.C. this spring was the Eugene O誰eill Festival.

Arena Stage announced the event in February, saying, The festival is a two-month city-wide examination of the life and work of American playwright Eugene O誰eill. Featuring partnerships with  education and arts organizations in the area, the festival runs March 9-May 6, 2012 and features three full-length productions and more than 20 readings, workshops, radio plays, lectures, panels, presentations and art exhibits.

Too much O誰eill? Not for O誰eill enthusiasts Joan and David Maxwell who sponsored the festival; not for this reviewer and definitely not for the enthusiastic audiences.

The presentation of Ah, Wilderness! in the Mead Center for American Theatre was a fine beginning for the festival. This new theatre building provided a perfect setting for some of the many events. As most of the readers have not seen it, it is appropriate to describe the stunning design by architect Bing Thom, chosen from an international pool of more than 150entries. He previously designed the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts at the University of British Columbia. His concept for Arena Stage has drawn praise from critics, audiences, and architectural journals, and has been described as daring, bold, and dramatic. He essentially created a new building which encloses the two theatres designed by Harry Weese. It surrounds the older building with a 35,000 square foot curtain of glass supported by impressive 45 foot columns of Douglas fir. There is one highly theatrical lobby with a 40 foot tall corridor leading to the theatres. High above the lobby is the restaurant with views of the city and the river as well as the dramatic interior of the building. Washingtonians crowd the restaurant and theatres every night.

Ah, Wilderness! was presented in the arena designed by Harry Weese for Artistic Director Zelda Fichandler in 1951. It is now appropriately named after her. It has been altered and upgraded by Thom, eliminating the problem which increased noise in the city had caused. The exterior glass wall helps and the previously existing box seats were sealed off with acoustic reflecting panels which improved the sound in the 683 seat theatre. Updated lighting and mechanical systems have made the theatre suitable for large-scale dramas and musicals. The steeply raked audience section still offers the excellent sight lines for each seat and patrons are never further than eight rows away from the stage.

The Fichandler is one of three theatres in the complex. The Kreeger (also designed by Weese) is a 514 seat space with a modified thrust stage. This theatre was also updated with current technology and the sightlines were improved by removing an interior staircase connecting the orchestra and mezzanine levels and placing it outside the theatre space.

The new theatre is the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle. This is an oval-shaped 200 seat space with flexible seating. It has wooden basket-weave walls which provide excellent acoustics. It is intended to 田radle new and developing plays. Play readings and productions offer opportunities for American playwrights.

As one walks toward this building, the towering glass fa軋de produces a thrill of anticipation that was amply fulfilled in the production of O誰eill痴 comedy. This play presents some staging problems in the arena theatre, as there are several setting changes and there is no curtain to conveniently mask the activity required. Scene designer, Kate Edmunds, pared down the amount of furniture required for each scene, carefully selecting pieces which reflected the early twentieth century time frame. Then, to enhance those moments of change, a group of musicians appeared at the four corners of the stage, led by a woman playing old time music on a violin, thus maintaining the mood established in each scene.

The period costumes ranged from the casual dress of Mildred and the Yale sweater of her older brother to the conservative suits worn by the Nat Miller, father of the family, and Uncle Sid, even as they prepared on a hot Fourth of July to go to a picnic (men only) and celebrate. After their departure, Essie Miller and Aunt Lily relax in the comfortable wicker chairs, fanning themselves to cool off in their floor length, long sleeved dresses, and plan their activities.

This play is always described as O誰eill痴 only comedy (although he wrote some early plays which are very funny) and so the temptation is to focus only on the happy humor and the comedy in the play. Fortunately, the director, Kyle Donnelly, appreciated the complexity of the moods and themes within the play. Explaining her interpretation of the play she said, Ah, Wilderness! is a fantasy, a recollection of what never happened, but of course we also see a glimmer of darker undercurrents. So we have the privilege of experiencing the depth of reality while also enjoying the humor and fantasy of the play.
Particularly in the characterization of Aunt Lily, played by Kimberly Schraff, we saw the complexity of character which O誰eill created, moving from happiness in the day, love for the family, expectation of the fireworks with a sober Uncle Sid, to her denunciation of everyone, including herself, for encouraging Sid痴 self-indulgence and alcoholism by always laughing at him and his jokes.

Rick Foucheux played Nat Miller, (the role created by the well-loved George M. Cohan). He brought to the role a genial charm, a relaxed quality, and a fine sense of humor. Some moments were particularly effective such as when he tried to talk his Yalie son into singing something to distract Essie, his mother, from worrying about the absence of son Richard. Foucheux moved about uneasily, then with nods and gestures indicated to the son the need for his songs. Of course, the last few moments of the play, with his panegyric about the beauty of mature love, offered him a fine opportunity to show off his skills.

This was the sort of evening in the theatre when the audience walks out smiling and happy, in animated discussion of the play. On the surface, one might think this is an easy play to perform, but, in fact, there are depths which must be explored and aspects not easy to develop. This was a good choice for the opening of the festival.

A few days after Ah, Wilderness! I went to the Capital Yacht Club for two evenings of readings of early sea plays. Foucheux directed students and alumni from George Washingon University and Georgetown University in four of these plays. The first evening was Moon of the Caribees and In the Zone and the second was The Long Voyage Home and Bound East for Cardiff. I had seen these individually, but never all together. The movement through all four created a wonderful sense of the interconnected characters and themes of the plays which were complemented by the setting, with views out the windows of the Tidal Basin and sail boats. Following the plays there were discussions and questions from the audience moderated by Erin Daley. Jackson Bryer and I also participated in the discussion. As Jackson remarked, with this presentation the settings, costumes, lighting, and music which normally enhance a production were absent, so that all we had were the dialogue and the actors. That made clear the richness of O誰eill痴 plays and the power of his dialogue, even in such early works, to grip an audience. The direction of the young actors was excellent and they performed with comedy, intensity, and pathos. The audience was particularly moved by the long scenes between Driscoll and Yank as they reminisce about their adventures as Yank is dying. Jackson commented appropriately that it is, in fact, a love scene which still holds us. The ambience of the Yacht Club, the skill of the actors, and the lively discussion which followed the plays made these two evenings most enjoyable.

Washingtonians really turned out for the many events in the festival and seemed to have a strong interest in O誰eill. A panel was scheduled for 6:30 on the night when I was to see Long Day痴 Journey Into Night making that quite a long night. Erin Washington moderated the discussion which featured actor Foucheux, Jackson Bryer, Rob Dowling and myself. The topics ranged from the impact of the early plays on the audience of the time (in contrast to such melodramas as The Count of Monte Cristo and D馗lass馥), an actor痴 approach to the plays, scenes and characters in the early plays which are fully developed in the late plays, and observations about O誰eill痴 process of development. Again I was impressed by the interest and knowledge about O誰eill expressed by the audience. Despite the length of the play we were to see, the moderator had difficulty in calling the discussion to a halt for the performance at 8:00.

Long Day痴 Journey Into Night is familiar to us from productions in regional theatres, on Broadway, in universities, and (in my case) having performed in it. So it is with a mixture of pleasure and apprehension that we approach a presentation. I can say at the beginning that it was the best production of it I had seen in several years. Director Robin Phillips has an established reputation based on his work in London, Stratford, Ontario, and other locations. He did not attempt any peculiar elements to make it seem more modern, did not alter any of the basic aspects of the staging, and simply presented a clear, carefully paced, moving production of the play.

It was presented in the Kreeger with a full setting. I will start by saying that I did not approve of the basic setting by Hisham Ali. It was a high walled, white and elegant modern seeming place which I would have been happy to move into. The idea of the ordinary New England cottage which is so disappointing to Mary was not apparent here. Setting that aside, I very much admired the functional aspect of the setting. In contrast to one production I saw in which there were sloppy piles of books all over the floor and almost no place for the characters to sit, this was a real set up for the director and actors. There was a chaise lounge stage right, the table and chairs in the middle with the chandelier overhead, a window seat stage left, and other places for movement and sitting. In the first scene the characters related to the nervousness of the situation by a fair amount of movement around and in an out of the doorways. In the scene between Mary and the servant Cathleen, Mary was almost without movement in her drugged state, lying on the chaise lounge, while Cathleen stood at the table. The shifting relationships between the men in the last act was marvelously displayed by their use of the space. I was moved by the picture of Edmund on the chaise lounge with the drunken Jamie on his knees near him, alternately telling him of his love for him and his antipathy toward him. Only in the last moments of the play was I disappointed in the stage picture, feeling that with all the men seated that Mary, rather than being seated, should have been standing for her last speeches.

Susan Benson痴 costumes were all that could be desired. They did not draw attention by any odd elements, and they established the period perfectly. Mary痴 dress in the first act is a good example. It was not only floor length, but it had a long train and was in a very subdued color. As she moved restlessly about, the train moved along almost as a recollection of an earlier time.

The four major characters made a fine ensemble and their interaction of anger, comedy, and love was perfect. In the panel discussion before the play I asked the audience to look for the love that pervades the play despite the animosity which leaps out. There was no need to search for that as the director had the characters revealing their love in closeness, gestures, and looks throughout the play. For many viewers the outstanding performance was that of Helen Carey as Mary. Certainly she carried out the disillusion and the shifts from happiness to anger, from sad remembrance to bitterness with great aplomb. Sometimes the actresses playing Mary, either through vanity or incomprehension, refused to accede to the demands of the first act by seeming plump. O誰eill makes it clear that her additional weight is the visual sign that she is not using drugs. When she does, she doesn稚 eat. Therefore, the first scene is taut with fear because she didn稚 eat breakfast. An actress in the role who is svelte and beautifully coiffured just undermines everything in the scene. Carey, in this scene, and in her last scene, appeared (with make-up and padding) as an older woman with grey hair which was a little disordered. In the final scene she really seemed to have been up in the dusty attic looking through the old trunks. But this was really an ensemble performance and Peter Michael Goetz as James, Andy Bean as James Jr., Nathan Darrow as Edmund, and Helen Hedman as Cathleen were all excellent.

The presentation was the last event in the festival for me, although there were more to come. The whole event was a major element in the theatrical and cultural scene in Washington this spring. Both Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre and especially Producer Erin Daley are to be congratulated.


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