Strange Interlude By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Michael Kahn
Shakespeare Theatre Company at Sidney Harman Hall to April 29
An O’Neill epic that’s emotionally transparent, even without every soliloquy

Thomas and Faridany

For an epic about madness, abortion, wartime tragedy, and marital deception, Strange Interlude can be surprisingly funny. Walter Kerr, writing in the New York Times about the 1985 Broadway revival, chronicled an evening in which an audience went from laughing about overheated moments and unlikely reveals to laughing along with the characters it had invested several hours in. Now Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael Kahn, staging a play that has fascinated him for decades, discovers comedy in how 21st-century audiences will inevitably respond to the fraught Freudian wranglings of characters living early in the 20th. But again it’s a binding kind of comedy; the actors lean gently into the laughs, but never wink, and by the end, you may just realize that you’ve been rooting for all of them at one point or another.

Which is something of an accomplishment, because even Kahn’s taut edit of Strange Interlude makes for a very strange play indeed, a drama that not only follows its characters over the course of a lifetime, but that turns their heads inside out at every moment. Each doubt, every internal judgment, every fleeting thought gets spoken aloud—in between more realistic exchanges of dialogue—until the web of public utterance and private thought becomes a seamless thing. To say that it requires an audience to pay attention is an understatement; to say that it requires the actors to be at the top of their game is to be painfully obvious.

It’s the story of Nina Leeds (Francesca Faridany), daughter of the patrician Professor Henry Leeds (Ted van Griethuysen) and the beloved of a World War I pilot whose fiery death at the play’s outset sets its high melodramatics in motion. Shattered, Nina repudiates her comfortable, cloistered life, throwing herself into a nurse’s career—and soon enough, as expiation for the cruelty of not surrendering herself to her gentlemanly sweetheart before his demise, throwing herself also into the beds of the warriors she tends. Nervous collapse can’t be far off, surely?

When it comes, Nina will marry a dull man for the sake of children and stability, only to learn, once she’s pregnant, a dark secret that should prevent her from ever bringing the fetus to term. What she will do then, to preserve her husband’s sanity and her own, will involve a great deal of knotty rationalizing, not to mention a handsome doctor (Baylen Thomas) who tells himself, until he can’t any more, that he’s not in love with Nina—only contributing, out of a sense of duty, to a medically and psychologically desirable outcome. Watching, and judging, and pining for Nina in his own way is her old family friend Marsden (Robert Stanton), an author whose attitudes are as Victorian as his novels, and whose understanding of his own needs and desires is decidedly less than thorough.

If Strange Interlude owes a debt to the melodramas of the generation before O’Neill’s, it’s nonetheless its own kind of beast—a sweeping tragedy informed just as much by the classics, and in its time a startlingly new, singularly American sort of drama, intimately concerned with the present moment and the particular individuals at hand. The forces that buffet them are personal, rather than the ineluctable demands of gods and fates; they make their own perils, and choose their own strategies for escaping them.

Nina, the siren around whom doctor, writer, and husband orbit, has to be charismatic enough to convince an audience of her command over the men—a point on which Faridany, frantic and brittle in the first act, cool and elegant by the middle, with a diction suggesting Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, has no trouble delivering. At the same time, she must be human and vulnerable enough that you never lose sight of the ends for which she undertakes such exorbitant means. (The elusive “happiness,” initially, but then eventually just “peace,” are the words that keep recurring in O’Neill’s script.) The long arc of her life may be pinned to events, but the play’s real drama is in her evolving understanding of herself, and in her ever-changing impulses toward the men whose leashes she holds. Faridany makes Nina’s roiling inner life admirably transparent, even when O’Neill hasn’t insisted she speak every thought aloud.

So too for Thomas, as the long-suffering Ned Darrell, whose discovery of just how much he’s in Nina’s thrall—and what escape will cost him—plays out over Acts 2 and 3. Thomas moves the character from rigid professionalism to distracted passion to defeated numbness and through to something like collected resignation, grappling always with the desire to connect with the son he knows he mustn’t claim as his own. (A nod, too, to the wardrobe and makeup folk who help Thomas age himself from a Hammish suavity toward a Keanuish dissolution.)

It’s Stanton who earns many, though far from all, of the latter-act laughs, as his Marsden grows ever older and fussier—though his sadnesses, and his own increasing awareness of how thoroughly he’s been trapped by his passivity, keep him from becoming entirely a figure of amusement. And Ted Koch makes Nina’s uncomplicated husband, Sam, a gratifyingly grounded, warmly agreeable figure at the center of all the turmoil; he’s a reminder of what the more excitable threesome around him are trying to achieve for themselves.

Special mention must be made of Tana Hicken, who has but a single (though pivotal) scene as Sam’s mother, and who plays it with a mingled ferocity and tenderness that temper the moment’s lurid revelations. And it would be remiss not to salute Walt Spangler’s set design—a tall white box that instantly sets high stakes, and that will remind Shakespeare Theatre veterans of the similar pale tomb of a set that framed Mourning Becomes Electra, Kahn’s last venture into O’Neill territory. Aaron Rhyne paints it with pale hues for quieter scenes, with a flaming, plummeting fighter plane in the play’s opening instant, and with land- and streetscapes for various mood-setting transitions.

No catalog of individual contributions, though, can capture what happens when all of them work best together: the moment at the end of Act 2, for instance, when Nina’s life, and everyone’s, achieves a kind of equipoise, when she has it all and the men yoked to her seem content enough about it.

It won’t last, of course. But the diligent work Michael Kahn and his cast and crew have put into this production means that you might be surprised how much you want it to.

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