Well into Act Two of the fine but flawed semi-biographical play O'Neill, running at the Blue Heron Arts Center through January 30, Jamie O'Neill tries to convince his father, James O'Neill, Sr., to consider playing one of the flamboyant characters that his son (and Jamie's brother), the playwright Eugene O'Neill, has written.
"I just read this [play] about a general who fought in the Civil War where his wife is waiting to kill him," says Jamie, leafing through a bound volume of O'Neill's withering trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra.
"But his wife kills him?" asks the obviously interested, elder O'Neill.
"Yes...So?!" replies Jamie.
"I've always hated that - dying on stage," says the old man. "I'd look ridiculous when I came out to bow!"
This line gets one of the biggest laughs in French-Canadian playwright Anne Legault's compelling, imaginative work, which "explores the boundaries between autobiography, fiction and divergent visions of reality."
At the same time, the line also hints at one of the play's chief drawbacks. Just as the characters playing the ghosts of O'Neill's relatives don't know exactly why they're spending time together with "Gene" in the California hills, it's downright baffling why Legault insists upon going even further with her fact-and-fiction conceit, since the result is that she ultimately bites off more than she can dramatically chew.
For example, in addition to the ghosts of James, the father, Mary Ellen, the mother, and Jamie, the brother, various other characters named after O'Neill's son, Shane, and his daughter, Oona (who married Charlie Chaplin), also arrive to pay daddy a surprise visit. Amid so many characters, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, the dramatist's third wife, is reduced to a kind of lionness traffic cop, never letting anyone forget that she is "Mrs. Eugene O'Neill!"
At its best, O'Neill - which seamlessly incorporates a number of passages from O'Neill's own autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night, into the action - movingly and lyrically explores and exposes much of O'Neill's self-torture, the source for much of his work. Whether it's his mother's drug addiction, his father's cruelty (or worldwide fame as The Count of Monte Cristo), or his brother's hopelessness, the pain factor in the O'Neill clan runs high.
At one point, Eugene asks his father about his mother's self-induced miscarriages. "My own mother did that! How many times?" Eugene poignantly asks.
"I never counted," replies the bullying, insensitive James, pouring salt onto his son's open wound.
Curiously, bits of O'Neill also play like a "Saturday Night Live" skit on this troubled clan, especially with regard to Carlotta - played admirably by Margaret Reed, but coming closest to caricature. When she corners visitor Edmund Tyrone - a character from Long Day's Journey Into Night - Carlotta snarles, "Now you listen to me! I don't know how you've been able to worm your way in here...Now that you're here, you'll do exactly as I say!"
Legault's reverence for her subject matter, her well-paced and highly-moving dialogue, and certainly her audacity in exploring and interspersing O'Neill's well-known characters in novel situations, all combine to suggest that a vital and highly-promising dramatist may be at hand. And while O'Neill doesn't run anywhere as long as Mourning Becomes Electra - a nine-act play in three parts, usually performed with a dinner break - I'd still like to see Legault focus on fewer characters in a shorter play. Less here might be more.
Without exception, the play's mostly veteran Broadway and Off-Broadway actors are excellent, with Nicholas Stannard as Eugene O'Neill and Wayne Maugans as his dead brother, Jamie O'Neill, particular standouts. Jeanne Ruskin as Mary Ellen O'Neill, Evan Thompson as James O'Neill, Sr., Jeff Bond as Edmund Tyrone, Greta Storace as Oona O'Neill, David Townsend as Shane O'Neill and Margaret Reed as Carlotta also turn in deft and enjoyable performances. Praise, too, for Daniel Libman, the Calgary-based playwright who translated the Legault's play from French to English.
After being so windswept by Legault's fictitious web of family reunions, I found myself mostly wanting to see more of Shane and Oona O'Neill - they felt like fresh flowers amid the twisted, tangled vines of the O'Neill manse. Then again, maybe they should be saved for a separate, shorter play - one just as laced with moving and entertaining insights into the mind and heart of the man still widely-acknowledged as America's greatest playwright.