While the New York audiences are raving about O'Neill's Iceman Cometh, we here in San Francisco are raving over Eugene O'Neill's greatest work. At least I am. The American Conservatory Theater revival is superb in the true sense of the word. The play takes place in just one day in the lives of the Tyrone family. This play, like Miller's Death of a Salesman, is as timeless and brazenly American as ever.
This is the granddaddy of all dysfunctional families ever seen seen on the stage. The play paints a harrowing portrait of denial and despair, alcoholism and drug addiction with the setting of the Tyrone family.
Set in 1912, the play takes place at the summer home of the Tyrones. The characters are the family patriarch James Tyrone, a former Shakespearean actor; his morphine addicted wife Mary; their self destructive oldest son Jamie; and Jamie's frail younger brother, Edmund. The play deals with the classic father son relationship, the sibling brother relationship vying for the mother's love and all of the accompanying powerful forces.
Over the course of four acts and four hours, the Tyrone family faces harsh revelations and bitter truths. However the play is ultimately about compassion and forgiveness.
The four principals in this wonderful cast absolutely flourish. Josef Sommer, who was last seen on Broadway in Shadow Box, plays the washed up actor-father, James, like a man buried under a trash heap of sins. He speaks with the eloquent, polished delivery that reflects his years on the stage, but he's more prone to level accusations than spout soliloquies.
Pamala Payton Wright plays the wife, Mary. You see her rapidly unraveling under the weight of the pathologically unhappy household. She conveys the tragic frailty of a faded beauty who merely wanted a simple life. With her hair increasingly disheveled in each new scene, she looks as if she's unraveling, losing her grasp on anything remotely solid. A magnificent performance.
Marco Barricelli, who was superb in ACT's Hecuba, plays James Jr., a loser and would be actor who dulls his anger and self hated with liquor and prostitutes. He is a burly blunder of tragic rage, an offish oddity who can tell his little brother how much he loves and hates him in the same breath.
James Butler Harner plays Edmund. The actor plays him as a sickly prodigal son, both repulsed by and drawn to his trouble family, and whose affliction seems inexorably linked to them. He is boyish and defiant. He is the most sympathetic character this play has to offer.
I have seen this play performed with many great actors. I have seen Frederick March, Sir Ralph Richardson and Jack Lemon play the father role. Mr. Sommer's performance ranks with their performances. I have seen Florence Eldridge, Katherine Hepburn and Claire Bloom play Mary and Ms. Payton Wright ranks with the best. What a wonderful and heartfelt performance.
This is a play for avid theater goers. I noticed some of the audience did not come back for the second act. Those were the persons who like light comedy or something in the vain of a Neil Simon play. This is a play one should see up close. It is so personal. This is the best thing that ACT has done this season. The play closes on May 1.
The next and last production will be the World Premier of a new musical The First Picture Show. It runs from May 6 to June 6, 1999 before transferring down to Los Angeles.
Theatre Works concludes their season with the West Coast Premier of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. This is a vivid and often compelling production staged by Margaret Brooker, founder of Seattle's Intiman Theater. It does feature some very strong performances in a somewhat uneven production.
There are some very strong scenes in the two and half hour play. Unfortunately, it becomes confused, muddled and sporadic. Sometimes one narrator gives way to another; these transitions are sometimes awkward. One tends to become confused as to the eight stories being told by the four mothers and four daughters.
Susan Kim's play is adapted from the two part novel of Amy Tan. The play had its World Premier in a Mandarin translation produced in China and Hong Kong. It was a joint venture with the Long Wharf Theater in Connecticut and the Shanghai People's Art Theatre. The premier took place in Shanghai in August 1993. It then toured in China's biggest cities and then to Hong Kong.
The Long Wharf Theatre mounted The Joy Luck Club in English in 1997. The play with a different Asian cast opens this week at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York.
The Joy Luck Club consists of stories from each of four Chinese mothers and their American daughters. Each mother has a story to tell. The action shifts from the China of the mother's childhood, to early adulthood, to the San Francisco Bay Area of the 80's. It is also the story of the daughters growing up in the Bay Area and the Americanization of the girls. Needless to say the daughters do not understand the old ways of the mothers. The daughters grow up and they make mistakes in their relationships with Caucasian and Asian men.
The director keeps the action flowing gracefully on a revolving stage. Some of the scenes such as the Chinese opera stage, a pagoda boat with ornate dragon prow and glowing red lanterns are beautifully done. There are also projected slides of Chinese villages, San Francisco and Oakland Chinatown scenes.
The costumes are richly ornamented with traditional Chinese gowns, sleek 20's outfits and excellent 60's and 80's attire.
The performances are strong, particularly the four Chinese mothers. All four are exceptional. Lisa Lu, the Beijing born film actress, stands out as the matriarch Lindo. She also played in the film version several years ago. She has appeared in many films including Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Several of the actresses playing the mothers also appeared in the Long Wharf production of the play.
The young Asian ladies who play the daughters are superb in their roles. Julie Oda was particularly good playing the daughter of the fourth mother played by the delicate Takayo Fischer. Ms. Oda served as the play's authorial voice. Bonnie Akimoto as Wavely, was excellent as the dressed for success daughter. The play does recapture some of the fire and warmth of Tan's original creation.
Theatre Works open their 99-00 season with Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George, on June 10 and running until July 10.
- Richard Connema