We have been running Strange Interlude this week. Our first run was last Wednesday, a week ago. We ran through it again on Thursday and another time this weekend. I am very happy with the progress we have been able to make. As many directors know, this can be a make or break juncture for a show, a time when it’s vital for the ensemble to gather a head of steam going into the final stretch. This week, there have been some long nights and hard days. They will only get longer, but such is life in the theatre.
A runthrough isn’t the same as a finished performance, but it can give you important information about which places still need work. I will hold a notes session after the actors come back from break, and then dismiss some members of the company so I can work on one or two scenes in isolation. The show continues to improve. It’s still unshaped in acts two and three—they will need tightening as well as a new look at them. The actors also need time to rehearse without any more script changes, so they can think and feel their way through the play instead of trying to remember what’s on the page. They are still establishing characters and relationships, but the time is fast approaching when the text should be frozen.
We did a quick touch-up on act 1, scene 3, the scene between Nina and Mrs. Evans, Sam’s mother. We have Tana Hicken playing Mrs. Evans. It’s a one-scene role but it’s a crucial one in the play. Tana is simply amazing—so experienced, so talented. She was wonderful as Paulina when I did The Winter’s Tale back in 2002, and she’s done many, many more shows with me. I am always amazed at the commitment of actors. Tana will drive down from her home up above Baltimore—a 45-minute drive, at least—and sit, patiently knitting, waiting for her cue. Then she walks into the room and just nails it. I still remember what she did at the table-read. She had people damn close to tears, on the first day. More importantly, she seemed to intuitively understand what kind of style Eugene O’Neill was writing for.
Act 1, scene 3 calls for Tana to play Mrs. Evans, a deceptively plain old rural woman who harbors a terrible secret. She is meeting Nina, her new daughter-in-law, for the first time, but she has a secret to tell her that could ruin Nina’s life. When done right, this scene has a definite architecture. It’s three different beats—Mrs. Evans’ painful revelation, the two women realizing all they have in common, and Nina’s own revelation to Mrs. Evans. Once Mrs. Evans discovers the truth—once Nina tells her what she will do—the two women have to deal with each other for the first time. It’s a scene that darkens and becomes ripe with emotion in a surprising series of twists and turns. This kind of structure, with multiple revelations piled on top of one another, needs to be carefully planned. The third beat, Nina’s revelation, won’t work unless the middle beat, Mrs. Evans seeing herself in Nina, happens.
I’ve said it before, but O’Neill writes his best love scenes between characters of the same sex. I’m reminded of the scene between Jamie and Edmund in Long Day’s Journey into Night—as Edmund’s older brother, Jamie confides a terrible secret in Edmund, somewhat like Mrs. Evans’ confession to Nina in this scene. The characters are brought closer together, into a kind of loving bond, but at the price of knowing a painful truth about each other. In Strange Interlude, which O’Neill described as his “woman play,” this scene is the only one between two women. It is brutally honest and intense.
Tana’s playing her character with a veneer of toughness, which I like. It’s a trait that emerges from having lived a hard life full of sacrifice. Mrs. Evans has real strength. She has experienced tremendous loss and developed the ability to somehow deny and live through it. The scene is beautifully written. There’s something endlessly mysterious to me about O’Neill’s ability to project himself into such tortured lives.
In act 2, scene 2, we reintroduce the character of Ned Darrell, the brilliant scientist who has been off in Munichon an early 20th century debauch. Ned is hopelessly in love with Nina, and he’s trying to escape her magnetic pull, but he can’t keep himself away from the siren’s call. It’s a plot that I think O’Neill may have gotten from Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler—Eilert Lovborg’s journey to Mistress Diana’s whorehouse, and back to Hedda’s fatal embrace. It’s an important element in the middle section of the play, when Nina is choosing between her various midlife options. Right now, Ned just isn’t seeming important enough, so we have to build some of that complexity back by restoring some text that gives him the texture his character has.
Act two ends in an utterly uniquely fashion: the “my three men” moment. Nina is surrounded by her husband Sam, her lover Ned, her celibate best friend Marsden, and her new child Gordon. It’s as close as the character comes to finding complete fulfillment, as close as her tormented psychology comes to finding peace.
Just like in act 1, scene 3, the beats have to be worked out precisely. There are so many moving parts in play here, and I’m not quite sure yet what the final shape is going to be.
We enter tech rehearsals today, adding lights and costumes and sound. The actors have quick changes between practically every scene, so we are going to run those transitions for the first half of the 12-hour day. Then we’ll come back and start from the top. I like directing during tech—the actors usually find my notes helpful amidst the chaos—and it has a very positive effect on the preview performances.
This coming week is another crucial one. We shall see what happens on the other side.
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.