Eclipse Theatre's production of Ah, Wilderness, as filmed by The Stage Channel
For a guy who died 59 years ago, Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) is having an amazing year in Chicago. The highpoint, arguably, was the Goodman Theatre's definitive staging of The Iceman Cometh, brilliantly conceived by director Robert Falls and a luminous design team. Over the years, the Goodman has staged a half-dozen O'Neill plays and hosted an international O'Neill Festival.
But the Goodman's dedication to O'Neill is equaled by Eclipse Theatre Company, the much-smaller Off-Loop troupe with a mission of "One playwright, one season." For 2012, Eclipse is offering plays from the early, middle and late years of O'Neill's career: his 1920 drama of two brothers, Beyond the Horizon (production now closed), which brought O'Neill his first Pulitzer Prize for Drama; his 1933 comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, a "Father Knows Best" idealized version of the adolescence he didn't have in New London, Conn., (running through Sept. 2); and Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill's autobiographical late-career masterpiece that more accurately records his family life in New London (Nov. 1-Dec. 9).
Eclipse devotes each of its seasons to a single author. Previous years have showcased the work of Lillian Hellman, Neil Simon, Pearl Cleage, Lanford Wilson, Rebecca Gilman and Tennessee Williams among others. This mission is unique in Chicago, although other companies have dedicated themselves chiefly to the work of a single author, reflected in company names such as Chicago Shakespeare Theater and ShawChicago (sic). For many years, these two troupes performed only plays by their namesake authors, although now they perform broader repertoire (especially Chicago Shakespeare Theater).
Question is, why would any theater company limit itself to the works of a single playwright, whether living or dead? The reasons are several and varied but Reason Number One is that the specified author probably is a damn good author. That certainly is the case with Hellman, Simon, Cleage, Wilson, Gilman and others to whom Eclipse has dedicated its time and talents.
But other reasons come into play when you aim at Shakespeare, Shaw and O'Neill. They are among the very best of all the world's Top Shelf playwrights. In every field of endeavor there are the ordinary, the good, the outstanding, the champions and — at the top of the heap — the greatest who ever were: Mozart in music, Shakespeare in drama, Phelps in swimming, Jordan in basketball, Ali in boxing, Michelangelo in art, etc. Here in the United States, Eugene O'Neill was acknowledged within his lifetime as America's Greatest Playwright; a title he still holds in death despite the massive achievements of others who followed such as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee among others.
There is a common thread linking all the greats I've cited above: Their achievements are about much more than telling good stories or winning games or races or matches. Their work has within it metaphysical elements that make it profound and lasting; some combination of the spiritual, the intellectual and the philosophical. It may be that sporting fans don't leave an event asking "What was that about?" or "What did it mean?" (questions common to the artistic experience); but even so, the greatest sportsmen and sportswomen bring an often-called "Zen" element to the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, to competition or personal best and to the dedication of years of training, and the best students and fans of sports are aware of it.
With great theater, on the other hand, the metaphysical element is inherent because theater began as spiritual expression and continues to be a primary force in expressing human yearnings, hopes, fears and conditions. Whether as artist or audience or critic, one approaches theater with the intent of exploring its metaphysical dimensions, or at least opening yourself to feeling them on a gut level. We go to theater to be at-one with the common humanity we all share. The greatest playwrights record and also comment upon the experiences of life and death, and they do so over the course of time during which their own experiences, views and understandings may mature and change. Each individual work can have a unique coloration. If we are to extract the most, understand the most, feel the most from a body of work, we must spend time with the playwright and drink deeply, once we conclude that the playwright is worthy of our time and attention. For 300 years there have been men and women who study Shakespeare as others study the Bible. Eugene O'Neill's father was one of them.
And that's why Eclipse devotes a year of study and production to one playwright, and why Robert Falls returns over and over again to O'Neill, and why we have ShawChicago and Chicago Shakespeare Theater.