'The First Man' arrives in Danville this weekend | January 13, 2023 | Pleasanton Weekly | PleasantonWeekly.com |

Pleasanton Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - January 13, 2023

'The First Man' arrives in Danville this weekend

Early O'Neill play functions as allegory for tension between family and individuality

by Jeanita Lyman

The latest Eugene O'Neill Foundation production from artistic director Eric Fraisher Hayes is set for a nearly sold-out run this weekend, with themes and dynamics in the play pointing to some universal tensions that might be particularly poignant to audiences following the holiday season.

Hayes said that while he had been familiar with "The First Man", it was only over the past year -- after visiting O'Neill's childhood hometown of New London, Conn. and being encouraged to revisit the 1922 play by dramaturg Beth Wynstra -- that he was able to understand and appreciate its deeper, universal themes and seek to bring them to life.

"There's just a really interesting dynamic in this play where the family functions as this giant collective unit against the individual," Hayes said.

The play centers on protagonist Curtis Jayson, whose unplanned pregnancy with his wife becomes the center of his family's scrutiny, and an allegory for the problems with herd mentality that can emerge even in the smallest, most intimate groups.

"I really got into the power dynamics and the pressure, in a sense the peer pressure from your family," Hayes said.

The protagonist's family, through gossip and various cognitive biases, comes to the unfounded conclusion that the unplanned pregnancy is the result of wife Martha Jayson -- whom they already have reservations about -- having an affair.

"I think it's because there are biases," Hayes said. "They don't like the wife. They see her as an outsider. She's from Nevada, from a mining town, and they're from the East Coast."

Hayes said this part of the play resonated with him on a personal level due to his own family history -- in which his great grandfather had been disowned at around the same period of time, for marrying a woman from Nevada who was looked down on by the rest of the family on the East Coast.

Like many of O'Neill's works, Hayes also noted that there were elements of the playwright's own life woven into the story that helped shed light on his motivation for moving to Danville decades later.

"He was trying to escape the East Coast," Hayes said. "The East Coast was too insular, too small. Everyone knew everyone else. He needed to go west to escape, kind of what the character is experiencing in the play."

"He needed to get out of dodge, so to speak," Hayes added. "He didn't want to be confined to small places with small thinking."

But while O'Neill himself came to Danville with the goal of escaping, Hayes said that for those not living the reclusive writer's life in the 21st century, much of what O'Neill had been seeking to escape from is tangible locally.

"I think the East Coast is more with people out here than you might think, and quite honestly it still dictates a lot," Hayes said.

Ultimately though, Hayes said that the themes of "The First Man" are universal, and not dependent on a particular place or time.

"It is about the pressures of the individual against the group, even if the group is completely benevolent and fair, and sometimes people don't fit them," Hayes said. "And this play is kind of about the friction within the family."

These group dynamics are omnipresent, Hayes said, with the expectations of audiences during the upcoming performance or others being one example.

"The audience will start watching the play and there will be unwritten expectations about how the audience is supposed to behave, and if someone doesn't conform to that, that's an issue," Hayes said.

Nonetheless, the century-old play does provide historical insight into a particular place and time, and the cultural dynamics that were in the background for its characters and O'Neill himself, which is of particular interest to dramaturg Wynstra, who has been working with Hayes for the third time in the upcoming production.

"'The First Man' was produced in 1922, at a fascinating moment in our nation's history," Wynstra said. "I actually think the play is a metaphor of sorts for the sentiments in the United States both in the early 1920s and even for today."

Wynstra pointed to the then-recent development of women's suffrage as a massive cultural shift that gave way to backlash.

"When the play was first produced, women had recently gained the right to vote," Wynstra said. "I believe when many of us think about the 1920s, raucous, Gatsby-esque parties come to mind with flappers exhibiting new freedoms (and shorter hemlines!)."

"The great waves of social change in the United States in the first part of the 20th century, coupled with burgeoning ideas about female independence and the post-suffrage rights of women, however complicated normative ideas around marriage and the role of wives and mothers," she said. "So, post-19th Amendment, there was actually a cultural backlash against the 'New Woman'."

In addition to the universal themes Hayes seeks to bring to light in the upcoming production, Wynstra said that the family dynamics on display in the play were also symbolic of the scrutiny and anger women were being targeted with at the time, as cultural anxieties about women's suffrage played out.

"'The First Man' deals with a family who is dealing, and not dealing well, with new ideas about women, marriage and gender roles," Wynstra said. "As much as certain characters attempt to evolve their thinking to more modern understandings, long-held and cultural-backed beliefs become hard to break."

Despite the historical significance, Wynstra noted that similar cultural tensions and shifts have persisted into the present day.

"I like this play because I think it reveals a tension still very much alive and well in our world today: a wanting of the new and the different yet an inability to break with what is known and familiar," Wynstra said.

"The First Man" will debut this Friday (Jan. 13), with limited tickets available that evening and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville. The 2 p.m. Sunday matinee has sold out.

On Saturday (Jan. 14) at 4 p.m. Wynstra will offer a free presentation entitled "Survival of the Fittest: Eugene O'Neill's The First Man and the Forces of Environment and Expectations".

More information and tickets are available at eugeneoneill.org.


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