O'Neill Festival's theme this year -- desire
By Lou Fancher
Partnering with downtown Danville's Role Players Ensemble, the Eugene O'Neill Foundation's 2015 season features O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms" at Tao House (Sept. 18-27) and Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Village Theater (Sept. 4-19).
Extending the delights of live theater, the season includes a reprisal of Director Eric Fraisher Hayes' Oregon Shakespeare Festival lecture on O'Neill's evolution as an award-winning American playwright (Sept. 12); a docent-led "Secrets of O'Neill in Danville" walking tour (Sept. 12); a panel discussion on desire depicted in theater, literature and cinema (Sept. 19); and a special literary event with theater critic and novelist John Lahr at Rakestraw Bookstore (Oct. 4). Lahr's new book, a collection of interviews, is "Joy Ride." Dr. Jeffrey Kennedy, president of the Eugene O'Neill Society, will moderate the presentation.
If there's a secondary element beyond establishing the universality of desire that defines the season, it's clearly immersion.
"It was easy to take the "desire" titles and make something on the surface," says Hayes. "But digging into the environmental role of both plays is what I've been thinking about."
Coordinator Amy Glynn says the midseason panel discussion she's organizing will invite audience participation. "(I) hope that people come away inspired to look at things more closely and through a greater number of lenses. Art feeds the soul. The more you find spokes of connection, the better nourished you are."
Eileen Herrmann, an O'Neill Foundation board member for more than 10 years currently archiving the foundation's extensive library holdings, says Lahr's October visit will illuminate the connections between Williams' life and work. Broadly, she says the London-based critic's interviews with playwrights and directors leave him with "a great deal to say about the state of modern American drama."
Hayes, zooming in on the staged productions, says that "power of place" defines, distinguishes and differentiates the two works.
"Elms is set in a button-down, isolated farm in New England. I've been asking the cast to think of it as an island," he says. "Streetcar is a hot place, a minefield of sensuality, a bacchanal."
Even so, desire explodes equally and each play introduces a particular type of madness.
"(In) Streetcar, there's Stanley and Stella, like animals in heat. The madness is supercharged, primal," Hayes says. The 1947 play centers on the volatile, sexually-charged atmosphere between a southern belle and her brother-in-law. It became a 1951 Oscar-winning film starring Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh and Kim Hunter.
"In the O'Neill play, every character wants to dominate that farm. It's obsession and madness through deprivation," Hayes says.
Written in 1924, O'Neill thrusts the Greek tragedy of Phaedra, Hippolytus and Theseus -- a love triangle involving incest, maternal filicide and duplicity -- into rural New England. The play also reveals O'Neill's innovations.
"It's the first set design where you didn't have a change for different scenes," Hayes says. "He created interior spaces within one set for 12 spare scenes that cut to the chase. It has a feeling of inevitability. With the tunnel focus on the Bible-thumping father, son and stepmother, we know what will happen. The ride is how it's going to happen, not what's going to happen."
Despite the dark, hyper-realistic aspects of the works, Hayes finds hope in them.
"Blanche's ability to reconcile and survive through pretending it's all imaginary," he says is Streetcar's optimism. Regarding Elms, he says, "The father is there before the events happen and like the tree, he never leaves."
Although Hayes says the film adaptation of Williams' play far surpasses the less-well-known 1958 movie based on O'Neill's play, he understands the dynamics behind the difference.
"They chose to bring in Sophie Loren. She's a fine actress, but she and the son looked like a love interest from the start. You lost the triangle with the much older father. And at the time, filmmakers really didn't want to touch the incest stuff."
Which makes the panel discussion -- about desire and how it is portrayed during different eras and in various art forms -- an area ripe for exploration.
"The scope of the conversation is boundless," festival coordinator Glynn says. "(It's) a multidisciplinary, multilens look at what "desire" means in art: what's taboo at a given time and why, what manifestations tend to predominate. We'll touch on not only bodily or sexual desire but other human appetites as well: food, money, power, altered consciousness. What is the nature of desire and how do we handle it?"