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“E.G.O.,” New Play About Eugene O’Neill Surprises, Charms Audience

Reviewed by Kurt Eisen

 

E.G.O.: The Passions of Eugene Gladstone O'Neill. Provincetown Theater, June 18, 2005.

A 1920 photograph shows a young Eugene O'Neill running along the beach, his arms thrust out exultantly, upon hearing that "Beyond the Horizon" had earned him a $1000 for winning some new award for drama called the Pulitzer Prize.

This is the jovial mood that playwright Jo Morello conveys in the first two scenes of her play "E.G.O.: The Passions of Eugene Gladstone O'Neill," offered as part of an evening of short dramatic pieces at the International Conference of the Eugene O'Neill Society in the Provincetown Theatre in Massachusetts on the evening of June 18, 2005. The image of the brooding and cynical O'Neill that has been an icon of American culture since the 1920s is given a jaunty makeover in Morello's treatment, as if to shake off layers of gloom that, according to her portrayal, seem to have unjustly settled on it.

The "E.G.O." excerpt was preceded by a reading of O'Neill's 1918 one-acter, "The Rope," fittingly among his more whimsical (speaking comparatively) works, and a fully-staged amateur performance of Susan Glaspell's well-known "Trifles." Both plays were written in Provincetown, the birthplace of an American drama worthy of the name. Both depend on a strongly foregrounded irony between the plot's primary quest--hidden gold in "The Rope" and a hidden motive for a crime in "Trifles"—and the surprise means of discovery.

The surprise discovery in these early scenes of "E.G.O." is an almost happy-go-lucky young O'Neill, whose playful courtship of Agnes Boulton bears little resemblance to biographers' accounts of a glowering Greenwich Village intellectual who abruptly announced to his future wife–a woman he'd just met—that they'd be spending every night together henceforth.

Set in a Village barroom called the Golden Swan, known as the Hell Hole, where Gene first met Agnes, and then in 1920 on a Provincetown beach, the first acts of Morello's play also feature Eugene's charming but doomed older brother Jamie, his guide to the decadent life of Broadway and an object lesson in self-destruction. Jamie turns out to be attracted himself to Agnes, partly out of such familiar vices as lust and envy, but also as a symptom of the deep psychic connection the brothers felt, as O'Neill himself made clear in writing "Long Day's Journey into Night."

It's very difficult to know precisely from this brief sampling of the longer work how the inevitable O'Neillian shadows will begin to spread over this sunny love story. But a playwright writing biodrama faces the stiff challenge of either superseding the received mythos with a fresher, more convincing image, or steering her narrative by the light of that tradition.

Judging from the tone and pacing of the first two scenes, Morello seems determined to place before us an O'Neill without the cynical mask he often showed the public—something more like unabashedly boyish and romantic temperament of his pre-1920 letters, especially those to Agnes.

As the young Eugene, Rob Anderson brought an engaging energy and humor to the role, trading gravitas for a sodden gaiety. Susan Winslow's Agnes seemed perhaps a mite too wholesome for a fledgling bohemian writer, while Ted Vitale's Jamie borrowed freely from the persona O'Neill created for his brother in "Long Day's Journey."  Much of the credit for these performances must go to director Margaret Van Sant for sustaining the energy of the show at the lively pitch required by the playwright’s vision of these episodes.

If Jo Morello's "E.G.O." is not exactly the angst-ridden portrait that has become almost a caricature of O'Neill, it may be that she has resolved to show another side of the great playwright's "passions," and to suggest that his creative life was less demon-driven and more simply human than has been supposed by those who know him only through his plays.

Dr. Kurt Eisen is Professor and Chair, Department of English, Tennessee Technological University, member of the Eugene O'Neill Society and book review editor of the Eugene O'Neill Review.

 

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