In New London, CT, the Monte Cristo Cottage- the summer home of playwright Eugene O’Neill – provides the setting for two of his best known works, namely AH! WILDERNESS! And LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. If you visit the cottage, you can actually position yourself in the rooms as they are described in the stage directions for LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, and become enlivened by the world of the play through the inescapable world of the playwright.
Truth be told, the feeling you get with O’Neill’s cottage is much like the one evoked by the play – an eerie, sad strangeness- but my memory of it was invoked when director Jim Christy held rehearsals for Bruce Graham’s new play, THE OUTGOING TIDE, at Bruce’s vacation home on the Chesapeake – which acts as the very setting for the play. The actors could follow scene by scene on Bruce’s property with approximate accuracy to the text, which includes fishing off a shoreline, conferring at the kitchen table, and even watching the tide crash and roll in and out. I couldn’t help but wonder how the actors perceived their “given circumstances” materializing in such detail – not to mention the pungent, wafting atmospherics of low tide. When I asked one of the actors about his experience, he replied, “It was really cold.” I do love that kind of frank, physiological response; it is pretty evident in the pictures taken on that day that the bundled actors braved a winter shore wind in the name of theatre. I did, however, have to ask playwright Bruce Graham his feelings on the site-specific rehearsal, to see what it was like to watch his characters move through his house and the world of the play at the same time. Unlike Eugene O’Neill, who cannot comment on his characters “ghosting” through his childhood home, how does a living playwright view this sort of enactment? With perfect, dependable candor, Bruce remarked, “Actually, it was kinda creepy. I think I mostly stayed in my room while they rehearsed.” Now, though THE OUTGOING TIDE and LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT are both family dramas, the plays are vastly different with regard to tone – the dividing line being O’Neill’s sullenness and Graham’s humor. So, maybe, it is not the reputation of the house, but more of the act itself, which makes the “live” text intrinsically spooky.
What makes this experience even richer, though, is how it has endowed the characters with a sense of place. Their performances were now imbued with a glow of fundamental home life, with the all its hair-pulling yet tender complexities intact. That remains something Bruce Graham and our audiences took pleasure in, the joy of watching the world of THE OUTGOING TIDE ebb and flow.
Yesterday, on April 22nd, Philadelphia Theatre Company watched THE OUTGOING TIDE leave our shore for the last time. It proved to be tremendously emotional experience for all of us, and one we will not soon forget.