Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009

Morningstar's Days Without End

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Being an agnostic and going to a performance by a Christian theatre company normally isn’t as weird as it might sound. Having grown-up entirely without religion I have no animosity towards it and I generally agree with the more selfless, human emotional side of Christianity that tends to be brought to the stage in theatrical productions. Eugene O’Neil’s Days Without End is a different kind of Christian drama. Its plot pretty narrowly focuses on belief versus non-belief in the divinity of Christ—the existence of a god. Seeing it staged by Christian theatre company Morning Star Productions, I got the impression that I was enjoying the play in a completely different way from everyone else in the audience.

 

STUFFY BACKGROUND CRITICISM

The play was written by Eugene O’Neil somewhere around 1933. The man who had battled with depression, alcoholism and the darker end of human emotion onstage over the course of his life had just moved to Georgia with his third wife Carlotta Monterey. With Monterey being as protective of him as she was, O’Neill’s marriage to her isolated him from the rest of the world, allowing him to focus on his writing to the exclusion of everything else including his own children--a situation which could not have been terribly healthy for someone suffering from chronic depression. His one comedy Ah, Wilderness! was written in 1932. It was an idealized vision of his childhood—youth the way he would’ve wanted it to be. About one year later, he wrote Days Without End: a sweeping, romantic vision of the healing power of Christianity that would seem extremely hopeful next to the far darker dramas that were to come later like The Iceman Cometh (1939) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1940.)



I don’t know how much of Days Without End could be construed as a straight emotional biography on O’Neill’s part. Taken in context of the hopefulness of Ah, Wilderneess! It seems like an extension of his wish fulfillment from that play. As opposed to being an idealized version of his youth, Days feels like an attempt to put to rest any guilt he may have had about his previous two marriages. The story surrounds the life of John Loving—a man working on a novel in an attempt to put to rest guilt he has over having had an extra-marital affair. He relates the plot of the novel to his wife in an attempt to allay his guilt while a more sinister part of him wants to will her to die so that he doesn’t have to deal with the guilt.

O’Neil, who had written pseudo-autobiographical stories before may have been putting himself on display here. The parallels between himself and Loving are substantial. Both had written for newspapers in the past. Both had parents who died while they were very young.  Both suffered from depression. Both may have been trying to work things out in the plots they were constructing. The mirrorplay between O'Neill and John Loving is interesting, particularly as the character is written to be played by two different actors. The mirror between Loving and O’Neill is fascinating to watch as the play dances around the stage, but there’s a really good chance that the rest of the people in the audience are taking John Loving’s slow return to humble Christianity as a more straightforward tale. Whether this is a tale of a man finding God again or a man working through his demons in an attempt to find a happy ending depends on your perspective. Being a subjectivist, I feel both are equally valid perspectives. It’s interesting watching the play and being conscious of that.

 

THE PRODUCTION

The drama plays out on a beautiful set by Mike Dorneman. White contrasts against black with very little room for anything else. Chairs and walls are rendered with a respectable level of detail in a style reminiscent of the work of Edward Gorey. It’s New York City in 1932. The choice of costuming by Marie Wilke cleverly plays with the black and white color scheme of the set. It all looks breathtakingly pallid. The only color we see until the very end of the play is in the skin of living, breathing actors.

O’Neill separates John Loving into two different characters who are treated by the rest of the cast as one. John (an admirably heroic Steve Koehler) is working on the cathartic semi-autobiographical novel  as the Loving (the character’s darker side) goads him on. Loving is played in suitably dramatic tones by Mike Lague. Both Lague and Koehler are Equity actors and their talent is among the most apparent in the cast. Koehler has a earnestness which carries a very organic performance. The difficulty here is that the realism of his portrayal ends up feeling a bit at odds with an lack of realism in the script that is generally uncharacteristic of O’Neill’s more accomplished work. Everything spoken here is spoken in overly simplistic, overly dramatic tones. By contrast, Lague’s powerful voice has a kind of spectral darkness to it that works well in what is essentially a villainous role. It’s a very poised performance, with glitteringly dark delivery of a cold perfection of enunciation. The two halves of John Loving are really interesting to watch here and a good portion of the production’s appeal. The simplicity of the drama fades out around them. There’s a depth to their performance that throws the paper-thin bluntness of O’Neill’s script into sharp relief.

Also putting in an impressive performance is Brenda LaMalfa as John’s loving wife Elsa. O’Neill really didn’t write much of a strong character in Elsa . . . she’s very much defined by her love for John, but LaMalfa manages to find some sense of individuality beyond that. The revelation that her husband has cheated on her settles in with slow subtlety. The stark change in her personality from there is at times captivating. Much of the rest of the cast feels uneven. Some of the performances may feel a bit flat, but these are largely flat characters. And one can hardly fault an uneven production of what is largely an uneven script. Things are off-balance throughout. And that makes a lot of sense, as the central conflict of the play IS cognitive imbalance. Color bursts through at the end of the play as John Loving has returned to faith, but it’s a far more complicated world with all those colors. And it’s a world everyone is walking out into at the end of the play. It’s not nearly as simple, but perhaps it’s nowhere near as dark a place as the one that had passed by in four acts onstage.

Morningstar's production of Days Without End runs through September 27th at Eastbrook Church on Green Bay Avenue.

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