April 5, 2012 | by Brian T. Carney
Dated drama

Robert Stanton as Charles Marsden and Francesca Faridany as Nina Leeds in the Michael Kahn-helmed Shakespeare Theatre Company production of ‘Strange Interlude,’ by Eugene O’Neill. (Photo courtesy STC)

‘Strange Interlude’
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.

1 Comment
  • Peter Rosenstein

    I don’t know what show Mr. Carney saw but it was clearly a different one than I saw. Here are my thoughts on a great production of STRANGE INTERLUDE.

    STRANGE INTERLUDE, A MUST SEE
    An evening with Eugene O’Neill is always interesting and I recommend that no one miss this great production of Strange Interlude at the Shakespeare Theatre.
    When he wrote Strange Interlude and it appeared on Broadway it was as a six hour play with a dinner intermission. It won rave reviews, a Pulitzer Prize and played for over 400 performances, unheard of at that time. Now a six hour production would be hard to do in today’s theatre world. But Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre and director extraordinaire has trimmed it down to a more manageable length, keeping the story intact and providing for a totally engrossing evening, well worth the investment of your time.
    It is the story of Nina Leeds’ (Francesca Faridany) life and loves, often unfulfilled, that keeps you enthralled. Faridany is passionate and brilliant in the role. The story covers 25 years of Nina’s life and begins when her father (Ted van Griethuysen) revealing that he was against her marriage to Gordon, never seen but who left for the war without marrying her and whose plane is shot down at the beginning of the play.
    This event leads to Nina’s changing her life, becoming a nurse, leaving the comfortable cloistered life she was born into, and entering a period of promiscuity before determining to look for “happiness” via a new marriage and children. Nina’s life for the next twenty five years revolves around her four men; her husband Sam (Ted Koch); Ned (Baylen Thomas) her doctor and lover; old family friend Marsden (Robert Stanton) an author with Victorian views and a clear lack of understanding of even his own needs and desires, and her son Gordon (Jake Land).
    The audacity of this evening in the theatre comes from Michael Kahn’s willingness to stage this play, which he has pondered for literally decades, and bringing his passion for it to today’s audiences. Times were very different when it was first staged nearly 100 years ago. But Kahn’s genius is making it work today and finding an amazing cast (including; Rachel Spencer Hewitt, Tana Hicken, and Joe short) who bring the characters to life in a way that we can relate too. It is Freudian and serious, and with Michael’s shrewd direction the humor that is part of these characters and their lives is brought out fully. By evening’s end you realize that at different times you loved and hated, understood and were appalled by everyone in it. Adding to the production is the great but spare set design by Walt Spangler and costumes by Jane Greenwood.
    Added to my experience with Strange Interlude was having drink’s with the cast after the show and finding out how much they appreciated the opportunity to act in this O’Neill masterpiece and how they all felt that Michael Kahn brought out the best in their performance.

    Don’t miss this amazing night in the theatre. It may be many years before Strange Interlude is presented again. It will be at Shakespeare Theatre’s beautiful Harman Hall until April 29th.

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