It’s week five. We just keep marching through the play like Sherman to Atlanta. All the way to Georgia!
Every day we fill in more of the picture. Each scene now has a real shape. I feel free to fine-tune – focus the actors on maintaining their diagonals, throw out old ideas because they no longer look realistic within the flow of the play and so on.
Our pace of working has tightened up. The actors are increasingly fluent in O’Neill’s language, and we can simply move faster. They’re not quite yet off book – we have enough calls for line that it breaks up the rhythm of the scenes, but that’s fine since it gives me a chance to deliver notes and thoughts one-on-one during pauses.
We usually rehearse for an eight-hour day, with a one-hour break for lunch. We will get through two to three scenes before we break at 2:30, then come back from lunch rested and rejuvenated. After lunch, we can start to connect multiple scenes into a suite. We may do a run at some point in the next week, if I feel comfortable.
I’ve written in my previous posts about the first few scenes of Strange Interlude. Today we made great strides on the final two scenes. They are a real study in contrasts, which is the point. At this part of the play, O’Neill is weaving the long, drawn-out arcs of his tortured characters into a graceful skein. Act 3, scene 2 builds to an explosive climax, and act 3, scene 3 is a different kind of complicated – the scene where our characters forsake the pursuit of happiness for something more easily achieved: peace.
Act 3, scene 2 is a taut and emotional scene. All three of Nina’s lovers – Ned Darrell, Sam Evans and Charlie Marsden – are onstage, along with Gordon’s fiancée, Madeline, the latter of whom Nina despises. It’s ten years after the previous scene and Nina has just entered menopause – she almost seems to be aging before our eyes.
At the end of the scene, as everyone watches Gordon in a boat race on the Long Island Sound, Nina’s husband Sam has a stroke and drops to the ground, apparently dead. The only character who sees the stroke is Marsden, the celibate novelist, who narrates the moment almost like a character in one of his books: “I knew it!” he says, “I saw the end beginning.” The way O’Neill has written the scene, with overlapping dialogue and interior monologue, it is very difficult to figure out the intricacies of who is talking to whom, and when. Everyone’s backs have to be turned upstage when the stroke occurs, except for Marsden. The action freezes for Marsden’s benediction for Sam, spoken as an internal monologue – and then springs back into life as Darrell, the doctor, rushes to check on the patient.
I was telling Robert Stanton (Marsden), that with O’Neill as with Shakespeare, it is important to have the thoughts on the line, rather than to complicate them with subtext. In order for Marsden’s benediction to work, the words have to express the emotions rather than the other way around. This is why I sometimes think classical actors are better for O’Neill rather than modern, “method”-style actors – they are more comfortable with the artifice and emotionality of the language.
Baylen Thomas (Darrell) has the opposite challenge. Playing a doctor tending to a stroke patient, he has to fit very technical stage business into a scene where he’s also acting emotional beats and speaking dialogue. Ted Koch (Sam Evans) is doing great work as the stroke victim himself. Sam is a loud, passionate man, and Ted can certainly get loud, but as an actor he’s wonderfully relaxed in the role, and quite good. Francesca Faridany (Nina) has perhaps the most difficult role in that scene – she’s at the center of the men’s emotional lives but almost a passive figure in this scene. She’s determined to tell Sam a terrible secret, and the stroke changes all of that. Watching Frankie act silently is like watching another actor perform a soliloquy.
The next scene, act 3, scene 3 is almost the opposite. Subtle and understated. The characters say final goodbyes and go their own ways. It’s a strange and tentative scene, filled with appeals to God, and we’ve just barely etched out the shape. The scene ends with young Gordon flying off in a plane, into the future, and the older characters standing onstage and looking up at it vanishing beyond the horizon. They have to make peace with death.
Sam’s mother, Mrs. Evans, has a line in the middle of the play, in a scene she shares with Nina. The two women are talking about the emotional costs of marriage on a woman. “There’s peace in the green fields of Eden,” Mrs. Evans says, “You got to die to find out!” At a different point in the action, Nina herself says she wants to “rot away in peace! I’m sick of the fight for happiness!” Throughout the play, these leitmotifs of “happiness” and “peace” ring out. They’re very important themes in the play, and to O’Neill they aren’t the same thing. Happiness is the ideal, whereas peace is what comes after you’ve given up the struggle. There is a moment in the final scene where Nina is finally at peace. It has to be pitched just so, like a plane landing.
As we work on these last two scenes, I can’t help but compare Strange Interlude to Fitzgerald’s similar masterpiece of the era, The Great Gatsby. Both were written by Irish-Catholics who went to Princeton University (although they never met). Both gained fame and notoriety in the late 1920s, the height of the “Gilded Age,” and both are partly set on the moneyed North Long Island shore, in their writers’ distinctly ivy-league milieu. Both works are obsessed by the dual aspect of American identity, and both feature narrators (Nick Carraway and Charlie Marsden) who are fascinated by the elliptical protagonist. Both even feature boat trips off of Poughkeepsie! And both end wistfully, and beautifully, with a reverie on past and present, happiness and peace.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, the last sentence (1925)
NED: Perhaps we’ll become part of cosmic positive and negative electric charges and meet again.
NINA: In our afternoons—again?
NED: Again. In our afternoons.
– Eugene O’Neill, Strange Interlude, Act 3, Scene 3 (1927)
Until next week,
Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Strange Interlude opens March 27th and runs through April 29th, 2012 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC.