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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 3
Winter, 1984


(IN THIS ISSUE)

REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE

1. THE FIRST MAN, directed by Ray Hubener. Presented by Stage Left, Inc., at the New Vic Theatre, New York City, October 10-28, 1984.

It is hardly surprising that theatrical producers would abandon The First Man or that literary critics would focus their attention on other works of the O'Neill canon. When I discovered that this early full-length play would be showcased by Stage Left, I anticipated the event with some reluctance. To my recollection, the presentation of obscure or less popular O'Neill, in the hands of a fledgling theatre company, rarely proves beneficial, either to O'Neill or to the company's reputation. On this occasion, however, the enterprising choice produced mildly engrossing results.

The protagonist of the four-act play is Curtis Jayson, an anthropologist determined to lead an expedition to Asia to discover "the first man." Jayson is burdened by two domestic responsibilities, which he painfully and unsuccessfully tries to avoid. The first, towards a dutiful wife and assistant, Martha, is revealed in his unwillingness to father another child. A conversation discloses that the couple had experienced the tragic deaths of their two young daughters several years earlier, and had promised to honor their memory by remaining childless. The second is towards Jayson's New England family whose philistine values he blatantly flaunts. When Martha announces that she is pregnant, Jayson suggests abortion. But Martha pleads that the child, certain to be a male, will serve as a "link" between them. The outcome is a curious one: Martha dies while giving birth to a son (their "first man"); and Jayson, refusing to acquiesce to his family's wishes that he acknowledge the child, entrusts it to them instead. Then he bolts out of the door to join the expedition long since under way.

As much as I tried to focus on the company's heartfelt attempt to breathe life into The First Man, I was continually distracted by the conglomerate themes, characters, and autobiographical data O'Neill was desperately trying to sort out. Most notably, the ghost of Strindberg hovers over the proceedings. The vault-like ambience of the living-room and study, unchanged through each act, suffocates all life within it, and contains the wrenching confrontations between Jayson and his wife, who closely resemble the married couple in Welded--one of O'Neill's purest Strindbergian exercises. Furthermore, intimations that Jayson may not be the father of his child are echoed by family members who function more as chorus than as fully etched characters. As for Jayson, drawn in the likeness of other tortured heroes we have come to recognize, he is passion-ate, stubborn, and poetic enough to believe that his dreams can only be realized in

some foreign landscape. O'Neill's investigation of a similar premise, so powerfully developed in Beyond the Horizon, seems mere amateurism in The First Man.

Perhaps the most striking association between stage life and reality--Jayson's refusal to confront the newly born child--parallels the playwright's own alienation from a son (Eugene, Jr.), born shortly after his marriage to Kathleen Jenkins. Although he wrote the play while married to Agnes Boulton, the turmoil he felt in the conflicting responsibilities of artist and husband was aggravated by the birth of another son, Shane, and his now inescapable role of father. The plays of this period reflect an undisguised anguish which has been heavily documented in the drama of his own life.

The mostly youngish actors at Stage Left, under the uncluttered direction of Ray Hubener, brought a much needed energy to the long-winded script. Occasionally the performance was marred by a solemnity which might have pleased O'Neill but did little to generate spontaneity in the action on stage. The fault lay in the direction. David Blackburn and Elizabeth Bove shared moments of power and credibility as husband and wife. Miss Bove was especially convincing, and her effortless and appealing manner elicited a strong response from the audience. At the performance I attended, the audience gasped audibly at the news of Martha's death--at once a tribute to O'Neill's inventiveness and to the actress's success in fashioning a character worth caring about. The one-dimensional portraits of the supporting characters, however, resulted from the playwright's weakness, in no way hidden or overcome by an inexperienced cast. A single set designed by Pat Vanderbeck served the players well, although an emphasis on primitive masks, highlighting the wall and alcove areas, seemed heavy-handed to me.

The New Vic Theatre is an attractive and intimate performing space with a roomy stage that rests at eye level with the first of some fourteen gradually elevated rows. This tightly contained atmosphere even suggests those environments in which the earlier plays were originally produced. I would hope that Stage Left, encouraged by the response of its audience, might tackle another infrequently performed American play before this season's end. It would be sad to discover its portal boarded up--the fate of so many Off Off-Broadway enterprises.

--Gary Vena

(IN THIS ISSUE)

 

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