Eugene O'Neill

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Reviewed by William Davies King


Hughie, Center Stage Theater; SBT: The Santa Barbara Theatre in association with The Namaste Theatre, April 7-15, 2006.

SBT: The Santa Barbara Theatre, in association with The Namaste Theatre Company, has remounted the latter’s production of Hughie, which was originally seen at the 2005 Eugene O’Neill Festival at Tao House. A different seating configuration necessitated some alterations in the blocking by the director, Michael Uppendahl, but the casting was the same, with Morlan Higgins as Hughie and Gregory Sanders as the Night Clerk. I did not see the Tao House presentation, but I was very moved by the opening night performance I attended in Santa Barbara, April 7 (the show runs through April 15 at Center Stage Theatre).

The director and actors have trusted O’Neill’s play as a drama, and so no effort has been made to verbalize or literalize the extensive stage directions, which portray in detail the inner life of the Night Clerk, other than what actors and directors normally do, which is to create a coherent world, finding character in action, action in situation. This Night Clerk stares intermittently offstage right, through the front door of the hotel, at the glare of an eternally flashing red neon sign, the heartbeat of a sleeping New York between 3 and 4 in the morning. He looks more alive in profile, when his mind is on his aching feet or his awareness of the interminable slowness of time, than when he turns, full face, and attends to Erie Smith, the unrelenting hotel guest, who seems so needy. Then, Greg Sanders’ impressive cranium, with scant hair, looks like Yorick’s skull, which makes it logical that Erie would spend an hour caught up in his memory of the former night clerk, Hughie, whom he knew well, dead this past week. “He hath borne me on his back a thousand times,” Hughie might be thinking.

Morlan Higgins’ Erie knows a ghost when he sees one, and a ghost is but a thin thread to life. One skull stands in for another, and obviously he can see his own sad end in the figure of this “dumb” clerk, who is like St. Peter at the gate of existential heaven/hell, a Grim Reaper whose feet ache. Is there no kick in this booze, Jamie wonders in Long Day’s Journey into Night, at the summer house in New London, just like the bums at Harry Hope’s in Iceman?  When will winter come? Erie, who is no sucker, can sense these eerie overtones. Even they must be figured into the odds.

Gene did not attend his brother’s funeral in 1923. His wife, Agnes, took care of the arrangements (a gruesome phrase). The proximity of such a failed gambler, so like himself and so unlike, was too horrifying for Gene to abide, since he, too, was staking a lot on his own despair, his own roll of the dice.

This production builds out an extensive set (designed by Kris Sandheinrich), with a hotel desk, a disordered rail, a lounge of no comfort, a second lounge of chaos, near the steps to the chambers of no rest. At times, of course, the play toys with the idea that the world (sans Jamie), has been reduced to a solipsistic hell. But the Night Clerk’s skull is evocative enough of life, of presence, that we can see the way to “going on,” like Vladimir and Estragon, who surely must have known the agony of running errands for such as Arnold Rothstein.

With no hidden agenda, O’Neill takes us to the limits of existence, and Higgins, Sanderson, and Uppendahl bring us home to our lives.

William Davies King is Professor of Dramatic Art at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He is the author of A Wind is Rising: The Correspondence of Agnes Boulton and Eugene O'Neill.


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