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Editor: Harley Hammerman
St. Louis, Missouri

Volume 8


Hughie at the Shakespeare Theatre

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer
St. John’s University

Hughie, directed by Doug Hughes. Shakespeare Theatre, Washington, DC, January 31 - March 17, 2013.

Today many directors approach a classic play with the idea that they have to do something to it to make it interesting. So we see productions in which a director has superimposed a concept on a play, often completely distorting the playwright’s vision. So it is very pleasing, even remarkable, to see a production for which the director chose to explore the play itself deeply and present a true and moving picture of the playwright’s work. Doug Hughes directed Hughie in Washington and working with actors Richard Schiff and Randall Newsome created a wonderful, deeply satisfying evening.

Why was this short play chosen as the first production of the new year at the Shakespeare Theatre? Artistic Director Michael Kahn has been a true O’Neill enthusiast for many years and has directed Mourning Becomes Electra and other O’Neill plays, probably more than any other American director. Last year at the Shakespeare Theatre he directed a thrilling production of Strange Interlude. He feels that O’Neill is appropriate for the Shakespeare Theatre, saying to me “Except for Shakespeare, who’s richer than O’Neill?” Another question about the choice of the play relates to its length. Some scholars and critics have pretty much dismissed the play as too short to be of real interest. When it was last presented in New York, critics commented on how much the play cost a minute to see—in other words are you getting your money’s worth? Kahn stated in the Shakespeare Theatre magazine Asides that in O’Neill the detail is what is important. “The playwright conveys one layer of the story, the private worlds of the Night Clerk and Erie Smith solely through stage directions. Director Doug Hughes has taken on the formidable task of making these secret worlds just as palpable as the stage the two men share.” Approaching the play in this way the director was able to develop this (in Kahn’s phrase) “deceptively simple play” with so much meaning and breadth that one could understand why Jason Robards found it of interest to perform it so many times over a period of thirty years and audiences feel it is a fulfilling evening.

Hughes has directed numerous productions over the years and has won Tony Awards, Outer Critics, Drama Desk and others. In 2005 he received an Obie Award for Sustained Excellence. He is no stranger to O’Neill, having directed A Touch of the Poet at the Roundabout Theatre in Manhattan. He also has fond memories of his father as Harry Hope in The Iceman Cometh. Richard Schiff just performed in Manhattan in Glengarry Glen Ross with Al Pacino. He is both well-known and popular in the political city of Washington because of his performances in West Wing for which he won an Emmy Award. He was drawn to this role because of a continuing fascination with O’Neill and his interest in exploring the solitude of Erie, “the way we feel when we end up in this place and just want to connect.”

Neil Patel designed a set which was very effective in its simplicity and allowed some interesting movement for Schiff. The original American production was criticized by some reviewers as too big and open for the size of the cast and the action. A later production was criticized because it seemed too nice—comfortable and inviting sofas contradicting O’Neill’s concept of a third rate hotel no longer trying hard for any effect.
Patel’s set was divided into three sections. In the middle of the stage was the desk with the Night Clerk standing behind it and on either side were poorly lighted spaces, one being the entrance from the street and the other the way to the elevator and the lonely room Erie wants to avoid. When Erie made his entrance he came slowly into the entrance, stopped, sank down on a hard straight back chair and took a drink from a bottle in his pocket. Later, when he seemed to give up on the new clerk and start to go to that lonely room, he walked part way into the space stage left, a beaten figure bereft of hope. In between he moved that hard chair downstage and sat on it a while, and later briefly perched on stools spaced apart stage left.

Hughes decided to take a cue from O’Neill who wrote that he would leave the problem of communicating the thoughts of the Night Clerk to the audience to future directors with new techniques with film and sound. Hughes had actor Reg Rogers record most, but not all, of the stage directions which were then heard as the play progressed. He also utilized two large screens in the side spaces and a number of smaller screens in the central section for projections of faces and other aspects which might reflect Erie’s memories, dreams, and hopes. As always with O’Neill the use of sound is very important. The noise of the garbage cans being thrown leading the Night Clerk to think “A job I’d like. I’d bang those cans louder than they do. I’d wake up the whole damn city.” The policeman marking his rounds, sirens, the passage of the elevated trains and other noises were indications to him of how late it was and how much longer he had to work.

As is also usual in O’Neill there is comedy (although many people either ignore it or deny its existence), and Hughes is well aware of the significance of construction in the speeches, the importance of a pause, and other elements which cause laughter from the audience. A particularly big laugh came about half an hour into the play during which time Erie had spoken repeatedly about his gambling. In a perfect deadpan Randall Newsome, indicating that he had been lost in his own thoughts, asked, “I beg your pardon, Mr.—Erie—but did I understand you to say you are a gambler by profession?” If a director is not expecting and appreciating the comedy in this and other O’Neill plays, quite a lot is lost. As Michael Kahn said in an interview with me, “I think you should find as much comedy in O’Neill as you can! (Laughing) He was an Irishman after all. There is comedy. He’s a great playwright, after all, so he knew what to do.”

Erie is such a demanding role. Schiff provided the variety and intensity needed to grip the audience. His movements and gestures seemed exactly right, all very appropriate for a man desperately trying to communicate. Hughes and he talked about the play in detail before beginning rehearsals, and the director said that in the few days after the preview performances they would continue to make adjustments. Indeed, he said even at the end of the run he could imagine continuing working on it if he were going to be in the city.

The Sunday before the February 9 opening, the theatre presented as part of their “Creative Conversations” a discussion of the play with Doug Hughes and myself, moderated by Literary Associate Drew Lichtenberg. Hughes’ comments revealed his extensive knowledge of O’Neill, literature in general, and theatre history. He said he would like to direct some of the less frequently produced plays by O’Neill such as The Great God Brown. That is an exciting prospect as this Hughie was truly memorable.

Hughes appropriately spoke of the anonymity of Erie, and Kahn referred to the “two nobodies” in the play. O’Neill, as interpreted by this director and cast, turned them into unforgettable figures. Michael Kahn wrote in Asides, “As in all of his plays, O’Neill makes us question how our own lives are shaped by the people we meet.”

Sources for quotes:

Asides. Shakespeare Theatre Company. 2012-2013 Season, Issue 3.

Shafer, Yvonne. “Michael Kahn,” Performing O’Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.


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