Classics Redux

Strange Interlude
Red Eye Collaboration

To Kill a Mockingbird
The Great American History Theatre

INFECTED WITH THE Freud bug in his five-and-a-half-hour melodrama, Strange Interlude, Eugene O'Neill had his characters divulge their desires directly to the audience in excruciatingly long asides. Revolutionary stuff in 1928; today, it's somewhat laughable. And that's what Red Eye's production aims for, slicing and dicing O'Neill's script to less than half its original length and reassigning the asides to two brooding commentators, Gene and Jeanne.

Just how dopey does it get? Take a deep breath. Nina Leeds grieves her lost love Gordon, nurses soldiers in a sanitarium, sleeps around until she gets loopy, and then visits Dr. Ned Darrell, who helps talk her into a loveless marriage to Sam Evans, and later Nina's mom scares her into terminating her pregnancy because all the Evanses have madness in their genes, after which a still-lonely and hysterical Nina, at Mrs. Evans's behest, begins a tryst with Dr. Ned to save her marriage, finds herself pregnant again, and in love with Dr. Ned, until he flees the country to once again save her marriage. But then--don't we all know someone that's happened to?

The production's stylized performances--all pathological, all excellent--can best be described in pharmaceutical terms. Sam Evans (Kyle Christopherson) looks like a lithium case, dementedly cheerful and out-of-touch. The glazed, hostile, and vocally uninflected Dr. Ned (Brian Chapman-Evans) has an anti-psychotic feel to him: I'd prescribe Thorazine. At the center of the play is Miriam Must's hilarious portrayal of Nina Leeds, whose glib neurosis suggests an aspirant Nembutol patient.

Noting the soapy plot and the delightfully warped acting during the play's droll opening scenes, one begins to wonder why director Steve Busa doesn't push the comic into camp. And then the lights come up and Ned is sitting on a leopard-skin chair wearing the biggest afro this side of Superfly. Gordon Jr.'s girlfriend translates a scene into sing-song French with invisible handpuppets. The acting becomes increasingly manic. Half the cast dons rubber noses. There is a clunking sound far off-stage; Eugene O'Neill is revolving in his grave.

In the program notes, dramaturge William Randall Beard (who also plays Charles with effete aplomb) compares O'Neill's script to "a high art Dynasty" adapted "for a contemporary audience with the utmost respect for the material." That is complete horseshit (no value judgement implied). If Red Eye believed O'Neill's original script were any good--and all indications are that it's not, at least for our age--their well-orchestrated sabotage of the play's intended Freudian intensity would be no way to show reverence. Systematically cleaving O'Neill's text from any fixed meaning with a grab bag of tricks, Red Eye successfully executes what might be the dirtiest word in the critical vocabulary: deconstruction.

At the end of the play, the cast stacks a thin-legged couch precariously atop a desk and bar, puts a chair above that, and covers everything in white sheets. Then Charles and Nina scale this furniture dolmen, seat themselves, and proceed to deliver the most straightforward scene in the production. The couch, one thinks, cannot possibly hold them. And then one realizes the Red Eye's Strange Interlude--having shrouded O'Neill's text and destabilized it to the verge of collapse--has been giddily balanced up there, courting dramatic disaster the whole time. Bravo, Red Eye, bravo.

The Great American History Theatre takes fewer liberties in its version of Harper Lee's classic Southern race fable, To Kill a Mockingbird. While I had forgotten Mockingbird since reading it in ninth grade (most of the adult audience could probably say the same), director Ron Peluso's quiet staging evokes a contemplative mood in the piece that probably eluded us as impatient pubescents. So how does the play compare to one's recollections of the richly imagined book? Benevolent Georgian lawyer Atticus Finch, who defends a wrongly accused black man, is still a venerable model of tolerance, if a little prissier than one may remember him; he dampens the spirits of his headstrong children, Scout and Jem, more than need be. The lower-class Ewells, who frame the innocent Tom, attract more sympathy than they once did. The greatest surprise is that reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, a compelling mystery for young readers, has lost much of his hidden power in the transfer to the stage. On the whole, the play rarely feels naive and its ability to appeal to decency and justice has not atrophied; although by trial's end, with only Boo's appearance and Scout's conspicuous maturation to reveal, this Mockingbird has sung its song. CP

Strange Interlude runs at Red Eye through October 29 (870-0309);To Kill a Mockingbird runs through November 11 (292-4323).

 
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