Sidney Harmon Hall
Eugene O’Neill Festival
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Through April 29
This year marks Michael Kahn’s 25th season at the helm of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. As an anniversary present to both himself and the city, Kahn is staging a rarely seen piece of American theatre history: Eugene O’Neill’s “Strange Interlude.”
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play broke all of the theatrical rules at its 1928 premiere. Running more than six hours long (the original production included a dinner break), the play features characters who speak their inner thoughts aloud and explores such previously forbidden topics as homosexuality and female sexuality from the perspective of new sciences such as psychology and eugenics.
This production, however, raises the question of whether a historical artifact such as “Interlude” can come to vivid theatrical life so many years after its shocking debut. The answer is both yes and no. With the permission of O’Neill’s estate, Kahn has cut the play from six hours to just under four hours, but he could easily have cut another hour from the script.
He turns the nine acts of O’Neill’s play into nine scenes presented with two badly needed intermissions. The show spans two decades and focuses on Nina Leeds, the daughter of a New England professor. As the play opens, Nina (Francesca Faridany) is in mourning for her fiancé, golden-boy Gordon Shaw, a pilot who died in World War I. The shattered Nina rebuilds her life through her relationships with the men who are drawn to her likes moths to a flame: novelist and family friend Charles Marsden (Robert Stanton); her husband, businessman Sam Evans (Ted Koch); her lover, doctor Ned Darrell (Baylen Thomas); and, her son Gordon (played by Jake Land as a boy and by Joe Short as a young man) who becomes a golden boy like his namesake.
Over the somewhat melodramatic course of the play, Nina becomes a nurse (who sleeps with the wounded soldiers in her care), learns a terrible family secret from her mother-in-law, has a son by her lover, plays the role of Park Avenue matron when her husband finally becomes a successful businessman, loses control of her son to his fiancée Madeline, and finally, after the death of her husband and the onset of menopause, finds peace in the company of the devoted Marsden.
The actors dive into this material with great commitment, but encounter a few problems along the way. Some are in the script. “Interlude” is famous for O’Neill’s use of spoken inner monologues, ranging from a word or two to short paragraphs. Film and stage directors have tackled these in a variety of ways — voice-overs, masks, freezes. Kahn skillfully guides his cast through these asides in a more naturalistic manner, using shifts in tempo, physical position and visual focus to clearly mark outer dialogue and inner monologue. But while Kahn’s pacing and staging are always masterly, he can’t ultimately hide the problem with O’Neill’s great theatrical experiment — it takes longer to speak subtext than to act it. The spoken asides get repetitive and are often rather obvious.
Another challenge is the design. Kahn cleverly uses projections to cover the set changes (the excellent projection design is by Aaron Rhyne), but when the lights come up, we are left with huge gray walls that dominate the action and dwarf the actors. A final challenge is the character of Nina herself — men can’t seem to tear themselves away from her but we’re never told why. Some of it’s in the writing but though actress Faridany admirably commits to the taxing role, her performance never truly catches fire.
There is, however, one spark of fire in Kahn’s production of this American classic —Robert Stanton’s portrayal of novelist Charles Marsden, one of the first coded gay characters on the American stage. Remarkably, he preserves the essential dignity of the character while not hiding the artistic and personal price of his sexual repression.