AISLE SAY Special Feature


Reported by Frank Evans

As the train from New York travels to New London, CT, home of Eugene O'Neill and the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, I'm aware of an America that has all but disappeared. From the train windows, there are not only the modern monolithic malls, anchored by Sears and Caldor, but decaying factories from the turn of the century. The shingled roofs once proudly displayed the names of their occupants, but a century's worth of storms have faded the letters so they are no longer discernable. As the train travels further, there are clapboard houses, then marshes and wooden boardwalks that stretch into the ocean. This is the same route the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O'Neill took countless times. In a few hours, I will be in the Monte Cristo cottage, in O'Neill's bedroom, rubbing my hand across the playwright's oak desk,

During their tenure, playwrights in residence at the O'Neill Center stay in O'Neill's bedroom, which faces the ocean. The O'Neill cottage is like a theatrical set. O'Neill's father, James O'Neill, Senior, (noted actor and the model for James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night") raised the ceilings of the modest New London home to give it a feeling of grandeur, but as a result, the upstairs bedrooms' low ceilings have the claustrophobic feeling of cramped dressing rooms.

No wonder O'Neill's mother Ella went crazy. While the O'Neill boys Jamie and Eugene had ocean views and Papa's bedroom looked out onto the countryside, Mama's windows looked at the walls of servant's quarters above the kitchen at the rear of the structure. Her cell-like room was her refuge when she took morphine.

My day at the O'Neill is as guest of Steve Wood, who has just been appointed President of the Theatre Center, although he has been involved since 1982. Wood looks like a better version of Dan Quale, say if Quale's features were in place properly. He dresses in a dark business suit, cufflinked red striped shirt with white collar. If he were a CEO, you would invest your widowed mother's pension funds in his corporation. He is not at all arty, but he surrounds himself with a staff that is. His primary aim is to keep the O'Neill solvent and he has some innovative ideas which seem to be doing the trick in this era of no money for the arts.

Wood, who grew up in New London, was not involved with the arts until his involvement with the O'Neill. Before then, he spent time at the Naval Academy, commanded a submarine crew, studied management at Yale and then served as president of two high-tech manufacturing firms.

The Arts could use more people like Wood. Working side by side with founder George White, he brings his management expertise to the O'Neill, preserving the integrity and vision of the center.

After we meet in Wood's office in the main building (a converted New London mansion) Wood walks me to "Ironsides", an even larger mansion which was donated to the O'Neill. The huge yellow edifice was moved onto the O'Neill property a number of years ago, but there were no funds to renovate the structure nor to bring it up to current building codes. Wood enlisted Navy volunteers from a nearby base to paint the outer structure. Currently a staff of carpenters, electricians and masons recruited from the inmate population of a local prison are painstakingly renovating the 19th century structure. The damaged oak panelled library has been reconstructed from scratch and the craftsmanship displayed in the carpentry rivals the interiors of the finest Newport residences. When the inmates are released, they'll have newfound marketable skills. Wood has also arranged for lawbreakers sentenced to community service to work on the mansion restoration.

The basement of the structure is being converted into a series of soundproofed rehearsal rooms. The main floor will serve as new administrative offices and Conference rooms and the second floor as housing for distinguished guests to the center.

Before my visit to the O'Neill, I was aware of their summer theatre conferences: their National Playwrights Conference, under the direction of Lloyd Richards, has nurtured talents such as Wendy Wasserstein, Lee Blessing, John Guare, Christopher Durang, Israel Horovitz, Ted Talley, Sybille Pearson, John Patrick Shanley, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson as well as hundreds of others. (The archives of the plays are stored in James O'Neill's bedroom at the cottage.)

The National Music Theatre Conference, directed by Paulette Haupt, gave birth to Maury Yeston's "Nine", and Bob Merrill's "Hannah, 1939", as well as upcoming productions of Rick Freyer and Pat Cook's "Captains Courageous", Douglas J. Cohen's "The Gig", Walter Edgar Kennon's "Time and Again" and "Violet", the Brain Crawley-Jeanine Tesori musical which has just been extended at Playwright's Horizons. New York lyricist Adele Ahronheim has been involved in a cross cultural project with Russian writers. The work, first seen at the O'Neill last summer will return next season for further fine tuning. Georgia Holof and David Metee's adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" is close to inking a tour which will involve high school students interacting with professional actors.

The Cabaret Symposium, under the supervision of Ellis Ellsworth, offers master classes from such distinguished performers as Julie Wilson, Margaret Whiting, songwriter Carol Hall and musical director Paul Trueblood. Talents which have emerged include Tovah Feldshuh, Steven Lutvak, Gary Lyons, Julie Halston as well as William Baldwin Young's critically acclaimed Cole Porter revue, "My Cozy Corner of the Ritz".

These are the best known gems in the O'Neill crown.

Less publicized, but just as vital, is The National Theatre Institute which offers two thirteen week semesters in comprehensive acting technique. I observe two classes with Wood. The first is a documentary film class. The college-aged students are in the initial stages of producing a film which will explore child abuse. The class, sitting on the floor in the Main theatre, is attempting to define the difference between discipline and abuse.

As part of a comprehensive acting class, instructor Scott Saunders is screening "The Head Hunter's Sister", a film which just played at the Berlin Film Festival. Saunders wrote the screenplay and plays a featured role. The emphasis of today's class is acting technique for film versus technique for stage. Later in the day, the students will perform scenes which will be recorded on video tape.

Even less familiar is the O'Neill's outreach program. Wood wants to use theatre as an educational tool in area schools and has succeeded by sending out presentations which address such topics as drug abuse and child abuse. In addition, outreach director Lynn Britt (an Old Vic veteran) has developed a program to teach foreign languages through acting. She and Wood are constantly exploring new teaching techniques which can use theatre to involve the surrounding community.

After observing the classes which coincided with my short visit, Wood drives me to the Monte Cristo cottage, where National Institute Director Richard Digby Day has been performing a series of Irish, Scottish and Welsh poetry. Digby Day has a bravura style, well suited to Jamas O'Neill's Parlor. Digby Day's delivery captivates the packed audience of older townies as well as a freshfaced group of high school students.

Monte Cristo Cottage Associate Curator, Lois Erickson McDonald, unlocks rooms for me which are not seen by the general public, including James St. and Ella's badrooms. McDonald invites me to spend the night reading "Long Day's Journey..."' in tha room so intricately described by O'Neill in the text and I wish I were not taking the 6:29 back to New York. It's all there: the round table, the center lighting fixture, the side board, the hallway where Mary Tyrone called out to the servants. The walls and ceiling are panelied in maple, not unlike wood flooring. Ella O'Neill is said to haunt the cottage. Someone (Eugene?) carved pan-knife graffiti into tha bannister sevanty or eighty yaars ago and tha restorers have not sanded it out.

There are curious contradictions going on at the O'Neill. Thay are steeped in the past: It serves as a second home to O'Neill biographers Barbara and Arthur Gelb. The Center has just inaugurated s series of all of O'Neill's plays. Wood is planning a Fourth of July performance at the cottage of "Ah! Wilderness!". (O'Neill's only comedy takes place in a setting very much like the cottage over a fourth of July weekend.) Thay are also involved in the upcoming Broadway production of the O'Neill drama "The Hairy Ape", starring Willem DaFoe.

The Center is also flourishing as they anticipate the future. Wood is not only nurturing and sustaining the core programs (there's also a puppetry conference and a critics' symposium) but is expanding on founder George White's long time connections with Russia and China. Plans include taking performers from the Cabaret symposium to Russia as well as a Russian tour of "Fiddler on the Roof". Wood is expanding the National Theatre Institute's acting conservatory to a year round operation and is involving the community with activities at the O'Neill. Wood wants more involvement with regional, and eventually, New York City theatres. And somehow, he's finding previously untapped sources of revenue to keep the Canter thriving. "There were times," Wood told me, "when we didn't know how many plays or musicals we could present until the last minute because we didn't know if we had funding, That can't happen again."

And with Stave Wood in command, one gets the feeling it shouldn't. The man who traded a submarine for an arts center is having a ball.

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