Eugene O’Neill is and always will be one of America’s greatest playwrights.
O’Neill’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize winning play Strange Interlude, currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company, I imagine, won the Pulitzer for dealing with topics not seen on stage before and for its use of soliloquies which are spoken directly to the audience. While this was an innovation in 1928, it is old hat now.
The plot centers on Nina Leeds (Francesca Faridany), the daughter of an Ivy League professor (Ted van Griethuysen), who is devastated when her adored fiancé is killed in World War I before they have a chance to consummate their passion. Ignoring the unconditional love of the novelist Charles Marsden (Robert Stanton), Nina embarks on a series of sordid affairs before determining to marry an amiable fool, Sam Evans (Ted Koch).
While Nina is pregnant with Sam’s child, she learns a horrifying secret known only to Sam’s mother (Tana Hicken): insanity runs in the Evans family and could be inherited by any child of Sam’s. Realizing that a child is essential to her own and to Sam’s happiness, Nina decides on a “scientific” solution. She will abort Sam’s child and conceive a child with the physician, Ned Darrell (Baylen Thomas), letting Sam believe that it is his. The plan backfires when Nina and Ned’s intimacy leads to their falling passionately in love. Twenty years later, Sam’s “son,” Gordon Evans is approaching manhood with only Nina and Ned aware of the boy’s true parentage.
Director Michael Kahn with the blessing of the O’Neill estate has trimmed the play from what is sometimes five or six hours to a more manageable three hours and 45 minutes. Even with the cuts, I feel that O’Neill overwrote this play and in the third act the story, at least for me, lost a lot of steam.
Now it’s time to get to the positives and there are a bunch of them in this production. Francesca Faridany as Nina gives a powerful and sometimes touching performance. This is not an easy role to perform and if done wrong it can be quite melodramatic. Faridany avoids all of those trappings with a solid interpretation of her character. The scene between her and Tana Hicken as Sam’s Mother is a particularly well performed section and was a highlight of the evening.
As for the men, Ted Koch as Sam comes off the best. He has a very likeable quality about him and even manages to bring a little lightheartedness to the proceedings. Robert Stanton as Charles comes off a little stiffer than he should. If you are vying for a lady’s affections you should not be as ‘one note’ as Stanton comes off. Baylen Thomas’s performance as the doctor left me a bit baffled. I felt that the sexual tension in his performance could have been much stronger. The scenes between Thomas and Faridany seemed to lack that extra punch that you would want in this kind of a play.
The physical elements are first rate. Walt Spangler has devised a unit set in which the furniture and doors come out of the floor. This concept works brilliantly because of the multiple locations within the play. The set is enhanced by Aaron Rhyne’s projection design which reflects the period of the 1920s and shows us where the world was going at that time. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting is subtle, yet unique. With every locale the walls of the set change color. This is achieved by backlighting the scrim like walls. This is an ingenious concept.
Michael Kahn and company should be applauded for the effort. Faridany’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. But after seeing O’Neill’s play, I understand why it is not produced as much as some of his other masterworks.
Running Time: Three hours and 45 minutes including two intermissions
Strange Interlude plays through April 29,2012 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall, 610 F St., NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office 202-547-1122, or purchase them online.
Strange Interlude is part of The Eugene O’Neill Festival with events happening all over town. A full list of events can be found here.