The cast of the upcoming production of Eugene O'Neill's final work is in the midst of their final rehearsals ahead of opening night, and the return of the annual festival in the Danville hills celebrating the playwright to its pre-pandemic capacity.
The Eugene O'Neill Festival began in 1999, expanding in 2013 to become a month-long event hosting a range of opportunities to engage with the historic Danville home where O'Neill lived, and the foundation bearing his name seeks to keep his spirit alive by supporting artists in the present day.
"We did the couple of live performances last fall but it didn't really feel like a festival," said Eric Fraisher Hayes, artistic director for the Eugene O'Neill Foundation. "But this feels much more like a return than last year."
While Hayes and the casts of last year's productions were able to leverage O'Neill's experimental work for ways to creatively adapt to pandemic circumstances for those two productions, the latest production will have the benefit of a full stage crew.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten" -- O'Neill's final work -- was a natural choice. according to Hayes.
"One reason was the investment in the characters from, and the stories from 'Long Day's Journey', and seeing this as a follow-up was an exciting thing artistically, but I also think it was a good way to return because it tends to be a crowd favorite," Hayes said.
"Long Day's Journey Into Night" was released in 1941, along with "A Moon for the Misbegotten" in 1943, are among the five plays O'Neill finished while living in Danville. Both are among O'Neill's most beloved works.
"I would say 'Long Day's Journey' and 'Moon for the Misbegotten' are probably his two most produced plays, and this one I think is the lighter, a little more playful version of the story of his brother," Hayes said.
The two plays feature semi-autobiographical stories about his estranged brother, but from separate angles.
"Eugene O'Neill struggled with the love and hate he felt for his brother Jim most of his life," Hayes said in a description of the play. "He explored his feelings for his brother through numerous plays, most notably as the intensely autobiographical older brother Jamie Tyrone in 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'. With 'A Moon for the Misbegotten', his last play, O'Neill sought to create a last moment of relief for his brother, and perhaps himself. The two O'Neill boys had both lived tormented lives full of anger, loss and regret."
"Long Day's Journey into Night" cast the character based on O'Neill's brother in the light of not just O'Neill, but the brothers' parents, who were both still alive at the time the play took place. In "A Moon for the Misbegotten," both parents have died and "Jim" is seen only through his brother's eyes and those of the family he interacts with.
"While 'Moon' is an imagining of his brother's last days, it is grounded in what Eugene O'Neill knew of the tortured end of his brother's life," Hayes wrote. "He knew Jim had launched a campaign to kill himself with alcohol after the loss of their mother and he succeeded in the fall of 1923."
O'Neill and his brother were estranged at the time of the latter's death, with O'Neill going on to develop health problems that would ultimately lead to his demise, and make him unable to produce any additional works after "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
"This being his last play, this I imagine might be the last time he felt this sense of purpose and meaning and relief," Hayes said.
Hayes said he imagines the play set to debut this week as O'Neill "dream(ing) up a brief respite from the pain."
"In 'Moon', O'Neill envisions a single evening of release in which his brother finds himself far away from his guilt and pain," Hayes wrote. "Jim is allowed to confess his sins and finds forgiveness and rest in the powerful arms of Josie Hogan. In this fictional account, Josie Hogan comes to embody a spirit of love, sacrifice and survival that the real-life O'Neill boys could only dream of."
In addition to Jim, the play centers around the fictional Hogan family, who own a farm owned by the latter, and function as catalysts for O'Neill to explore and celebrate the highlights of his Irish heritage.
"I think the beautiful line that kind of gets danced along during the play is that it's this tragic figure of his brother going to the farm of these really hardscrabble folks, and they just have this kind of youthful way of coping with the difficulties of life," Hayes said. "And I kind of find this is true of the Irish experience."
"I think in Ireland, because it's a country that's had a hard history, what else do you do except make jokes and sing songs and probably drink when things are tough, and this play has that ... it's dealing with tough topics, but it's dealing with them in this style of kind of coping with it in a playful manner," he continued.
Hayes said that O'Neill's ability to use his personal experiences and relationships as fodder for stories that appeal to and resonate with a wide audience is one reason for O'Neill's fame and renown as a playwright.
"In the broader sense, what I think of with autobiography in theater is that it takes a very talented artist to tap into a universal approach that is meaningful to them but also to audiences," Hayes said. "There's a lot of art out there that's very meaningful to the person who creates it, but to other people it's very clear, like this is someone's therapy."
"The really good artist finds a way to touch on such broad and deep rooted human experiences -- like O'Neill is good at -- that he takes the autobiographical and makes it meaningful to all of us," he continued.
Despite the play's universal appeal to audiences though, Hayes said he believes it was a vehicle for O'Neill to wrap up some "psychological loose ends."
"Probably one of the big tragedies of this play is that his brother lived this kind of destructive, ruinous life and then his father died ... and all of a sudden the mother was still alive and she got off her drug habit, and Jamie got off his drinking habit, so he actually found a meaningful relationship with his mom for a year and a half, and then she had a stroke and died, and that kind of set him off on this tailspin where he drank himself to death in 18 months," Hayes said.
"At this point, I guess in the early '40s, most of these things had happened 20 years ago if not before," he continued. "(O'Neill) wasn't giving them a pass but he was at least helping recognize their humanity and the complexity of their situations."
Hayes said that potentially one of the many complications that caused O'Neill and his brother to cease contact was that O'Neill's brother had also held talent and promise, but could not channel it in the same ways.
"Jim (or Jamie) also was probably very talented," Hayes said. "He'd actually gone to college; he'd written poetry and was considered pretty good but he had so many personal demons that he was never able to focus on it."
"I think O'Neill had some of the similar situations, except that for him, he had the ability to focus and create. So I think he wasn't able to escape his pain, but he found meaning in his pain in a way his brother couldn't," he added.
While Danville residents in general have a unique connection to O'Neill, with the Tao House being one of the town's major landmarks, actor Ryan Hayes, who stars in the upcoming production and was previously cast as the same character, has gained unique insight into O'Neill's relationship with his brother in both plays.
"The opportunity to revisit the character of Jim/Jamie Tyrone from three years ago is like stepping into an old pair of comfortable shoes," said Ryan Hayes, who has no relation to the artistic director. "In 'A Moon for the Misbegotten' it's a decade later and his circumstances within this play feel as if they have higher stakes than 'Long Day's Journey into Night.'"
"With his mom and dad no longer around, I sense a more seasoned, world-wearied individual who feels untethered and is floundering," the lead actor continued. "Yet, Eugene O'Neill still manages to keep Jim's charm, playfulness, and dark sense of humor intact, while still being cynical, contradictory and utterly complex."
The rest of the four-person cast is rounded out by Michael Sally as Phil Hogan, the patriarch of the family who Jim interacts with in the play; Caitlin Evenson as daughter Josie Hogan, and Danny Georgiyev in the dual role of son Mike Hogan and T. Stedman Harder.
"Mike's only scene is the opening scene of the play, in which he runs away from home to make his own way in the world," Georgiyev said. "Josie assists in his 'escape', packing his bag and giving him some cash for the road. This generosity doesn't stop Mike from lecturing Josie on her lack of virtue and shameless ways with men. He is a very religious and judgmental young man. He is, like many Eugene O'Neill characters, very hypocritical. He preaches decency whilst having flexible morals of his own."
Georgiyev's other character is a millionaire who stands in contrast to the Hogan family.
"(Harder) has never seen a hard day's work in his life, and has contempt for the lower class," Georgiyev said. "So needless to say, he does not care for the Hogans as neighbors. This leads to a confrontation between the two parties which, without giving too much away, does not go the way Harder envisioned."
In addition to enjoying the opening of the play this week, Eric Fraisher Hayes recommended that event-goers prepare to make it a full-day activity, with picnic lunches and a tour of the house in which O'Neill wrote his final work and others.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten" opens Saturday (Sept. 10) and runs on weekends through Sept. 25.
Other attractions in the month-long festival include a run from Danville to the Tao House on Wednesday (Sept. 7), a jazz concert at the Auburn Lounge on Friday (Sept. 9), a "ghost stroll" on Saturday (Sept. 10) and an Irish music concert at the Veterans Memorial Building on Sept. 16.
More information is available at eugeneoneill.org.