The Enduring Influence of Eugene O’Neill

“He was America’s greatest playwright. He was the writer who influenced everyone who came after. He plumbed the deepest mysteries we encounter in life. He wrote about the darkest moments in our lives.”

Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith was talking about none other than Eugene O’Neill, who, with probably not too much argument from anyone, was and perhaps remains our finest master of theater and literature, exploding with a rich and troubled career of the kind of scope and ambition this country had not seen before.

O’Neill is the subject of a two-month, far-ranging in venues and events homage and festival, an homage and celebration of O’Neill’s work and lasting influence through performance, discussion, readings — and sometimes events not entirely easy to categorize.

“It’s also a great opportunity to initiate collaborative projects with other theaters or with our universities. Sometimes, that’s become an increasingly effective creative force in the city and become a characteristic part of this city’s culture,” Smith said.

The festival is spearheaded by three full-length productions, two at Arena Stage and the third at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. In addition, there will be 20 readings, workshops, radio plays, lectures, panels, presentations and art exhibits throughout the Mead Center, and a number of diverse partnering groups, organizations and institutions, among them the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, the Capital Yacht Club, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the New York Neo-
Futurists, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Taffety Punk and the University of Maryland.

“At Arena, we’ve had similar festivals for Arthur Miller several years ago and for Edward Albee last year,” Smith said. “I would think it’s about time we honored O’Neill in a similar way.”

It is easy enough to see O’Neill who was born in the last part of the 19th century as a kind of progenitor in the middle of the 20th century and father of modern American Theater, and it is not too crazy to compare him to non-American geniuses like Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen and Chekhov.

The three plays being performed offer ready-made examples of the O’Neill oeuvre: there is “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at Arena’s Kreeger Theater, the long, classic and hypnotizing family epic, loosely based on the travails of his own family; there is “Strange Interlude,” one of the less seen works because of both its epic and poetic nature, and “Ah, Wilderness!,” the 1930s play about small-town American life, and often seen as O’Neill light, as in light-hearted, fueled by an unusual amount of optimism, a play which makes the similar “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder look downright bleak.

Smith, who has directed productions of such O’Neill plays as “A Moon for the Misbegotten” and a brilliant “Anna Christie” at Arena, sees “Ah, Wilderness!” which in the distant future from its opening morphed into a musical starring Jackie Gleason and called “Take Me Along,” as evidence of O’Neill’s Irish humor, although some of the great, ambitious and/or autobiographical plays like “Long Day’s” and “The Iceman Cometh” are scarcely laugh-filled. While Arena is the major force and organizer behind the festival, Smith herself did not direct any of the three plays.

“O’Neill looked at the darkest part of himself and his family and America,” Smith said. “He influenced everyone that was a serious playwright, from Williams to Miller and so on.”

The festival runs from March 9 to May 6, while “Ah Wilderness!” is probably the official kickoff event in full flower, opening March 9 and running through April 8. The play is a kind of coming-of-age story at its heart, portraying the Connecticut Miller family during plans for a Fourth of July celebration, and features a group of Washington’s outstanding actors, including Nancy Robinette, Rick Foucheux and the teenaged June Schreiner who made such a splash in Arena’s Oklahoma. Long-time Arena favorite Kyle Donnelly will direct.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” directed by Robin Phillips will run at the Kreeger Theater, March 30 through May 6, as the Tyrone Family battles each other and the travails of money and ambition.

Shakespeare Theater Company Artist Director Michael Kahn tackles one of O’Neill’s most difficult plays in his production of “Strange Interlude” which spans two decades. It was hugely controversial in its time (a1920 debut) and then became a smash hit, a hugely dramatic modern American tragedy. (March 27 through April 29)

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