17th O’Neill Festival offers substantial September lineup
By Lou Fancher
Words and wordless wonders converge at the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site in Danville. The 13-acre national park property nestled in a northeastern niche abutting Las Trampas Regional Wilderness offers breathtaking vistas and firsthand access to a celebrated American playwright.So it’s an oddity that many people have never visited the national park and the most frequently asked question encountered by Tom Leatherman, superintendent of the East Bay’s four National Park Service historic sites, is this one: “Who’s Eugene O’Neill, and why is the park named after him?”
The 100th birthday of the National Park Service in 2016 and the 17th annual Eugene O’Neill Festival in September are a happy collision that result in a series of events aimed at enlightenment on all fronts.
Despite O’Neill being America’s only Nobel Prize-winning playwright and having penned works that include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” among others, even savvy theatergoers associate O’Neill with the East Coast and aren’t aware that the park’s barn and beautifully restored and preserved Tao House were O’Neill’s private home from 1937 to 1944. The park’s unique placement — with restricted access and parking requires hiking in or taking a free shuttle from the Museum of the San Ramon Valley — adds to its mystique.
This month’s lineup of activities is substantial: a Ric Burns’ PBS American Experience documentary about O’Neill was to be shown Thursday; a Centennial Park Hike led by the NPS and East Bay Regional Park Rangers will be on Sunday; a program featuring Leatherman that highlights the four national parks in Contra Costa County will be this coming Thursday; an exhibit at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley; the festival’s three staged theater productions; and a special opportunity to gain insights about O’Neill’s 1920 play, “The Emperor Jones,” in a Tao House discussion with Eric Fraisher Hayes, artistic director of the Eugene O’Neill Foundation.
“O’Neill brought a new understanding of the psychological experience of a character and went beyond the literal — which was the practice of that time in theater — to the human condition as a state of mind,” says Hayes. “It’s a world that lends itself to expressionism. You can bend things.”
“Emperor Jones” was O’Neill’s first big commercial success and marks American theater history with the first African-American leading role written by a white playwright. One example of how the play “can bend things” comes by way of distant drums that will be performed live and initially come from a native population gathered to plot a rebellion. As the play progresses, the drumbeat returns abstractly, starting at 72 beats per minute like that of a human heart, it’s paired with the pursued emperor and accelerates to reflect his growing agitation. “It’s his internal fear, throbbing,” says Hayes.
The play’s turmoil and rule bending extend also to language: the “n-word” is used frequently. The actor who originally played the role of Brutus Jones, Charles Sidney Gilpin, apparently objected and in performance would remove or change the word. O’Neill eventually replaced Gilpin, and Hayes says the word–included in the Danville production–leaves him with mixed feelings. “I have no problem getting rid of it when it doesn’t serve the drama. Especially when it’s used for vernacular, it bothers me.”
But when history proves that it’s a part of a character’s authentic voice, a primary concern for O’Neill, according to Hayes, he feels compelled to retain it.
“O’Neill wasn’t factoring in what we factor in today. And Interestingly, Adrienne (Pender), who’s African-American, asked me to leave it in.”
Pender is the 2015 O’Neill artist-in-residence whose play, “N,” will receive a script-in-hand, staged performance Sept. 29 during the festival. She told Hayes that she wanted audiences to see her play in the context of that tension, to have that controversy fresh in their minds.
Hayes says the atmosphere in the barn where plays are staged is already charged with energy. “O’Neill wrote many of his plays in his study in Tao House, just steps away. We turn a light on in his study during the show. There’s a synergy, a cosmic connection. It’s as if we’re in a time portal.”
Equally important to direct connections is expanding the range of people introduced to O’Neill’s work and for that, “we bring him down off the mountain,” says Hayes.
His talk at the museum and the festival’s third play, Edward Albee’s “Seascape,” performed at the Village Theatre and Art Gallery in downtown Danville, provide increased exposure. Leatherman agrees that accessibility is the park’s greatest challenge.
“The festival is a creative way to see the site. Because there are events at other locations, there’s no pressure to come up, but there’s opportunity.”
Most of the approximately 3,000 people who visit the park in a given year tell Leatherman “it’s amazing,” and want to know it’s history. The O’Neill Foundation’s website (eugeneoneill.org) provides extensive background. And like Leatherman, who says that live theater is just one of many magical aspects of the national park system, audiences will likely discover a world of wonder, perhaps one that’s impossible to describe in words.