REVIEWS AND REPORTS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
3. "WHERE THE CROSS IS MADE," "BEFORE BREAKFAST," and "THE DREAMY KID," directed by Kenneth MacDonald. Presented by The Winter Company at the Tower Theatre, Mass. College of Art, Boston, February 13-26, 1986.
Two parts of the Winter Company triptych proved interesting affirmations of the young O'Neill's ability to create dramatic mood ("Cross") and enhance atmosphere through the employment of slang ("Dreamy"). But in the central panel, "Before Breakfast," an attempt to alter O'Neill's intentions served only to confuse the audience and to suggest that in playing O'Neill--especially in playing such experimental and strangely delicate works as these--it is best to trust the author. When they did, as in "Where the Cross Is Made," the Winter Company succeeded admirably.
The set for "Cross" was stark and simple: two black flats upstage, a table downstage right, and a stairway that led up to Captain Bartlett's deck--a platform between the flats, lighted by an appropriate lantern. By dispensing with nautical trappings, the company heightened the effect of the play as a drama of the mind and made it what O'Neill called it in a letter to George Jean Nathan (quoted by Louis Sheaffer on p. 443 of O'Neill, Son and Playwright)--"theatrically very thrilling." While O'Neill's "experiment" in treating the audience as though it were mad did not come off--could it ever?--the spectator was forced to confront essential notions of sanity and of familial duty, two themes that run through the playwright's entire career.
The production stressed the relationship between Captain Bartlett (Chuck Brining) and his son. At the outset, Bartlett stood on his "deck" and etched a series of tableaux that would be echoed later by Nat--most notably when, after contemplating the sea, he raised his arm and clenched his fist in defiance, a gesture that Nat would later utilize in mirroring his father. Captain Bartlett was visible throughout the first scenes of the play, always watching the sea, his actual physical presence above the action serving as an embodiment of the spiritual presence that directs Nat. The production was able to successfully flout conventions of sanity via the characterizations of the Bartlett family. The grandeur of father and son contrasted effectively with the "blandeur" of sister Sue (Jen MacDonald) and Dr. Higgins (Peter Whitten). Sue's quotidian tidiness of mind, coupled with the workaday quizzicality of Higgins, moved the audience toward the more compelling visions of Nat and his father. And since Captain Bartlett had the only unflagging vision, we were caught up by his unswerving certainty.
Nat's differing levels of intensity were conveyed effectively by Richard Callahan. His pipe dreams of his "book," the "map" and the trinkets he possesses are but the broken dreams that he lives by--dreams fed by the frustrations of his broken body. Nat is desperately trying to escape his familial destiny, yet what else is there for him? By the time the three ghosts enter, it seems as though his "madness" lies in his attempt to reject his inevitable fate. The ghosts were, incidentally, saved from melodrama by Kenneth MacDonald's Silas Horne, who led in the trio with such intensity and purpose that he managed to overwhelm the inferiority of his supernumerary comrades. The map Horne gives to the Captain and that ends up in Nat's hands led to the play's final image--Nat's taking his father's place on "deck." The performance left the audience questioning the dreams of all the Bartletts. When Callahan burned up the "only" map, he kept hold of it until, with a flourish, he clamped its embers into Nat's hand. This moment was almost a recapitulation of the entire play, for Nat's grasping at the embers of a treasure map was as futile as his striving for literary glory with his illusory book, and as Sue's dream of settling down far away from the sea. For Nat in the end found, like his father, that the sea itself was the only valid dream.
The cast of "The Dreamy Kid" proved that O'Neill's slang could create a dramatic milieu that is neither stilted nor awkward. When delivered with the fluency that it was here, the play is a gripping crime melodrama. The set was not elaborate: a heavy cast-iron bed painted a bilious green, two pictures--of Frederick Douglass and of Christ at Gethsemane, the latter directly over Mammy Saunders' head--a bureau, and the mirror in which Dreamy's vanity would survey itself. Most interestingly, the wall that ran along the hallway was a scrim through which, at the play's penultimate moment, we could see the policemen about to spring on Dreamy. And a hurricane lamp, the play's final light source, created deep shadows that added mightily to the tension of the denouement. Equally deep was the patina of timelessness and hopelessness that extended from beginning to end.
Georgette Leslie had a poignant authority as Mammy Saunders, a power that rendered believable her compelling the "kid" to remain. Dreamy is like so many of O'Neill's heroes in that through his struggle to get home, to "belong," he traps himself: he is cornered while listening to Mammy Saunders recount how he came by his name. Michael Jones brought a mournfulness to Dreamy that allowed him no sentimentalization. Despite his swagger and his flashy clothes, he seemed to accept his fate; indeed, Jones' Dreamy was genuinely fatalistic. Zakiya Alake, as Dreamy's hardened lover Irene, was no mere sketch but a real woman in love with a doomed man. In all these performances, it was the actors' fluency with the dialogue that rendered the play successful--no mean feat, given the vintage of the slang. When Leslie's Mammy Saunders began to murmur a spiritual, the entire play took on the atmosphere of a wake--an appropriate coda for the Dreamy Kid's last stand.
The trouble with "Before Breakfast" was less in what we saw than in what we didn't see: the trembling hand of Alfred Rowland never appeared. This left us wondering whether there was an Alfred Rowland. Was he but the product of the speaker's guilt-ravaged mind? Or were we Alfred Rowland? (After all, we were repeatedly addressed directly.) It can be argued that any of those perspectives is possible--yet this production appeared to offer all three at once. At play's end, Paula Jowanna directed her final (and all too readily anticipated) shriek downstage right, behind a coat rack, doing nothing to alleviate our confusion.
Save for the coat rack, the set was fine. A single functioning faucet indicated that this was a cold-water flat; the floor was thick with cigarette butts and ashes. And Mrs. Rowland's appearance was just right: the archetypal frump, complete with twisted stocking seams that spoke of other twists within. Jowanna caught all the anguish of a tortured woman, and earned fleeting bits of pity by underplaying the role's comic possibilities. But a fine performance was undermined by our nagging uncertainty about Mr. Rowland. Had the director at least had her focus on one location for Alfred, her nascent pitiableness might have borne fruit. But he did not. And he compounded the confusion by giving her two extra belts from the gin bottle, emphasizing an alcoholic tendency that inspired a fourth possible notion about Alfred: perhaps the entire play was nothing more than a dipsomaniacal dowager's bout with delirium tremens. Ms. Jowanna, and Mr. O'Neill, deserved more.
In sum, while two rights could not overcome a disastrous wrong, the evening's performances were worthwhile--especially "Where the Cross Is Made," which demonstrated that play's enduring dramatic value and highlighted themes that O'Neill would draw upon in later, larger works. All three revealed that O'Neill's short early plays are theatrically viable and can move contemporary audiences if the playwright's instructions are faithfully heeded. Even "Before Breakfast" taught that lesson, in reverse. Tamper excessively with such delicate artifacts, remove just one tremulous appendage, and you may lose everything.
--Thomas F. Connolly
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