Michael Kahn
(© Henry Linser)
Michael Kahn
(© Henry Linser)
Michael Kahn is one of the world's foremost experts on William Shakespeare, but the artistic director of Washington D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company is currently switching gears to direct Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Strange Interlude to perform in Sidney Harman Hall, March 27-April 29.

The production, which stars Broadway veteran Francesca Faridany as Nina Leeds, is part of D.C.'s Eugene O'Neill Festival, which also includes Arena Stage's productions of O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness, and Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Moreover, it is part of a recent resurgence of the playwright's works around the world, including current productions Beyond the Horizon at New York's Irish Repertory Theatre and at Chicago's Anatheum Theatre; A Moon for the Misbegotten from New York's Pearl Theatre at New York City Center, along with the upcoming productions of Long Day's Journey Into Night at London's Apollo Theatre, starring David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf, and The Iceman Cometh at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, starring Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy.

Kahn is hardly surprised that so many companies still produce O'Neill's works. "He created modern American drama and he writes about the most complicated issues about family and relationships, and does it in the most magnificent way. He is still resonant to almost everyone," says Kahn. "With this festival in D.C., you can see Ah Wilderness, when he's basically uncritical about this extended family, through Strange Interlude, which is a very different take on a family, to Long Day's Journey, which is the darker side of the family."

Kahn says his first exposure to Strange Interlude -- which focuses on a heartbroken woman who engages in a series of affairs, marries a man she doesn't love, and then finds herself pregnant -- came at a very young age. "It was in my parents' library. They had a lot of plays -- my mother's first husband was a bookseller -- and I read it when I was 8 or 9," recalls Kahn. "I can't imagine I knew what it was about then. I was in college when I read it again, and I found the stream of consciousness passages to be so interesting. And then I saw it with Geraldine Page on Broadway in 1963 and she was so wonderful. I've wanted to direct it for many years. I once wanted to do it for the Roundabout, but that didn't happen."

As Kahn notes, the play, which spans 30 years, is considered by some to be O'Neill's most experimental work, with characters speaking aloud their inner thoughts (but not as conventional monologues). "The play contains a lot of what he learned about Jung, Freud, and James Joyce, but its themes are about how how people search for happiness," he says. "All the characters are looking for something -- sex, power, love, or money -- the things everybody goes after to be happy."

The original text of Strange Interlude runs about six hours, but STC's version will probably run closer to three hours (with two intermissions). "I got permission to edit the text from the O'Neill estate, and it's changed every day in rehearsal; we put things in and take things out and then we put them back in," Kahn says.

"We're also playing around with the stream of consciousness sections, and we're doing them in a different way," he adds. "Not everyone turns around and freezes and starts speaking. In fact, I have to remind the actors sometimes to not turn around. Part of what we're doing is creating a version that will spur other theater companies to do the play."

Most of all, Kahn hopes audiences will appreciate the work. "We're doing a play almost all of our audience has never seen," he says. "There's always a very complicated relationship between O'Neill and an audience, since they're afraid it might be stodgy. And I'm sure there are people among our subscribers who will adopt a wait-and see attitude until they get their tickets. But I'm hoping for the best."