Kahn Tackles O’Neill’s Daunting ‘Strange Interlude’

In theater, as in other endeavors, there are plays and roles that sit like slumbering challenges, just daring for artist to tackle them.

For actors, it’s Lear—but not yet—and the layer-upon-layer Hamlet, or Willie Lohman, or Maggie the cat or Blanche. And what opera director doesn’t some nights of the Ring Cycle, tossing and turning in a sweat.

For directors, especially American directors worth their salt, all they have to do is go to the collected works of Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill wrote all sorts of plays, one-acts, surrealist fare, auto-biographical epics and four-hour sojourns waiting for the iceman to cometh. The O’Neill canon is an ocean full of white whales.

And none may be more elusive than “Strange Interlude,” a major hit in its day when it finally opened in 1928 after years of labor by O’Neill, controversial for its content and its style. It was hugely ambitious in trying to tell a story spanning decades of American life — forward and backward, past, present and future.

For Michael Kahn, in the midst of a 25th anniversary season as the artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Theatre, “Strange Interlude” is a play, he said, “I’ve always wanted to do, and for a time I thought I would never get the opportunity.”

He had come close once, but the project collapsed for various reasons. “But when this anniversary came up, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to tackle the play,” he said.

When you start thinking about this, you have to admire Kahn for thinking about it at all. His legacy in Washington and his whole career is secure; he would be forgiven for resting on his laurels.

“Strange Interlude” is something of a risk today, maybe even more than when it opened. It’s a legend of size and scope—various stories have the original production running as long as between six and four hours with an intermission break for dinner. Plus, O’Neill told wrote some of the dialogue in stream of consciousness style, in which the characters express their inner thoughts.

“Well, this production is more like three and a half or so.” Kahn said. “I don’t think today’s audiences will have trouble relating to it or the characters. It’s about something everybody has a stake in: the pursuit of happiness and the great difficulty and tragedy that surrounds that pursuit.”

While Kahn is also considered one of the consummate interpreters of the plays of Tennessee Williams, he’s no stranger to O’Neill. “He is the major figure in American theater,” Kahn said, “the father of American theater, with a huge and diverse body of work, a pioneer, a great writer whose work contained some of the finest work not only in theater but in American literature. I learned about him by reading. We had a lot of books in our house when I was young, and I ran across his first play, “Dynamo.”

“Ah, Wilderness!” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” both at Arena, and “Strange Interlude are part of a unique and ongoing O’Neill festival in Washington right now.

Kahn remembers seeing Frederic March playing the father in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a production he calls remarkable. “Jason Robards (considered the O’Neill actor by many) was playing one of the sons, and he would later play the father.”

Kahn—in a stellar career that included a vivid production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” on Broadway—directed O’Neill’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” twice. He got permission to edit “Electra” (as well as “Interlude”).

Still, the idea of “Interlude” is daunting. In the 1920s, the play was shocking for its Freudian content, for a plot that included abortion, sex and an intelligent, strong woman dealing with the lasting wounds suffered after her fiancée is killed in World War I without the opportunity for consummation of their love.

“The pursuit of happiness,” Kahn said, “that’s the American dream, that’s what we’re about as a country. There’s no society that places such a stress on the theme of happiness.”

Francesca Faridany will perform the role of Nina in this production. “Strange Interlude” is rarely performed, but that may be part of its appeal to audiences and certainly for Kahn, who presented the rarely performed “Camino Royal,” by Tennessee Williams and the equally rarely staged “Timor of Athens.”

Kahn is excited about “Strange Interlude” and thinks audiences will be, too. “It is one of the great works by our greatest playwright. It has a compelling story that resonates for today’s audiences. It’s about America and us, and we can see ourselves in those creations. It’s a great achievement on the part of O’Neill—the play spans 30 years and was written in the 1920s. So, he had to imagine what this country would be like in the ’30s and ’40s, and I think he did a good job of it.”

Listening to Kahn talk about the play, you feel he relished the work, like opening up a lost, true book and bringing it to life.

(“Strange Interlude” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall through April 29).

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