Oldcastle opens Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece

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BENNINGTON, Vt. — The great Tennessee Williams, himself, once proclaimed that Eugene O'Neill was the father of American theater. As such, many who follow, love, as well as work on stage, consider "Long Day's Journey into Night" to be the greatest American play ever written.

After a long absence, the O'Neill masterpiece returns to the region at Oldcastle Theatre Company, where it opens Friday, Oct. 5, for a limited engagement of 12 shows, through Oct. 14.

The story, which O'Neill originally drafted in 1941, takes place in 1912, on one day in the life of a tumultuous family, the Tyrones, complete with patriarch James (Nigel Gore) and his wife, Mary (Christine Decker), who are joined by sons Jamie (Martin Jason Asprey) and Edmund (Brendan McGrady), and the maid, Cathleen (Piper Goodeve).

The plot and characters are based on O'Neill's own family, and very thinly veiled, according to Eric Peterson, Oldcastle artistic director and co-founder, who is also directing this production. He said the family is all at once dealing with "alcoholism, addiction, illness, unprincipled behavior, as well as the gift of powerful expression."

"Because of the parallels and the difficult subject matter, O'Neill didn't want the play performed until 25 years after his death, and had it held in trust at Random House and Yale [University]," Peterson said. "But when he died in 1953, his wife, Carlotta, had all the legal rights to it by virtue of it not having been copyrighted."

Carlotta proceeded to have the play open in Sweden in 1956, and then it headed to Boston and soon after, Broadway, Peterson said. It also earned O'Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize, posthumously, in 1957, and won Tony and New York Drama Critics honors. O'Neill had also previously been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1936.

In a break from rehearsals, Decker said that she has "fallen in love with the character of Mary," and that acting in O'Neill's magnum opus is the professional experience of a lifetime.

"I'm overwhelmed as words fall short while I'm absorbed in this huge show written by the most amazing American playwright," Decker said. "It's hugely compelling and so appropriate in these days of addiction in families that are suffering from the shame. It examines both the more socially acceptable alcohol addictions and morphine addictions that even now haunt our lives."

Decker added that the story presents the situation "in such a poetic manner" and that Mary Tyrone is a rich role, who as a mother and wife "is intelligent and tortured."

Nodding his head nearby, Gore said it was "great to be back at Oldcastle to do this giant play, which many consider the greatest of the 20th century," following his last 12 months, which included shows at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., Bedlam Theatre Co. in New York, American Repertory Theatre in Boston, and Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox.

"This play is vast in its scope and unrelenting in its demands," Gore said. "James Tyrone is a man of intense and frightening mood shifts. He is full of love, rage, frustration, sentiment, and despair by turns, [while] driven by the poverty of his youth."

Gore explained that he loved his character's courage "and his passion for Shakespeare," the latter a longtime acting specialty for Gore, who is a native Briton and recently naturalized American citizen.

"I love James' love for his wife, and am amazed by the immensity of his achievement," Gore said. "While a tortured soul, he's [still] living the American dream in the truest sense. Out of school at age 10, he worked and educated himself, and made an extraordinary life. I hope to God I can bring at least some of that to the stage, and I love [director] Eric Peterson for taking on this play [at Oldcastle]."

Before shepherding his charges back to rehearsals, Peterson added that Oldcastle's closing the 2018 season with O'Neill's play was part of "a bigger picture, and no accident."

"We're here to tell stories, but also to make sense of the world around us as we see it," Peterson said. "The messages connecting these plays to what is happening around us today are very much there. I truly believe our audiences this year [have left] each performance with a deep appreciation for that very thing. `Long Day's Journey Into Night' is a masterpiece for that very reason."


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