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Posted Jul 11, 2012, 4:51 pm
This weekend, Beowulf Alley Theatre’s presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s self-suppressed “Exorcism” could be a great date night for students. The play is short and straight forward – you’ll be back on the street ready for new adventures in 45 minutes. Student admission is only $8. You’ll have bragging rights for having seen an extremely rare work by one of the most important playwrights in American theatre. Final performances are Friday and Saturday, July 13-14.
The only buzz kill is that the brief work involves O’Neill’s failed suicide attempt a century ago. Yes, the future Nobel Laureate and multiple Pulitzer Prize winner was such a screw-up in his early 20s that he couldn’t even overdose successfully.
“Exorcism” is set in a barren room in a New York flophouse that “Ned” shares with his even more pathetic buddy, Jimmy. The flophouse environs and its denizens would be greatly expanded on in O’Neill’s later full-length drama, “The Iceman Cometh.”
The setting and circumstances of “Exorcism” reflect O’Neill’s own – living in a New York City flophouse, he had been kicked out of Princeton, had divorced his first wife and had deeply disappointed his family. This, of course, is the same family who would eventually show up twisted and broken themselves in his dramas, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Because of its frank biographical detail, O’Neill stipulated that “Long Day’s Journey” not be published until after his death.
O’Neill also suppressed “Exorcism” after its initial two-week run in his home town in 1920, supposedly destroying all copies of the play. A copy was discovered among the papers of his archives at Yale University last year and published.
Beowulf, in offering the play, provides appropriate caveats. “Exorcism” has cache for being a great artist’s work rescued from the brink of oblivion. Beowulf also concedes that doesn’t make the short, approximately 30-minute play, great. It may point to O’Neill’s future mastery, but it’s awkward, tough-guy dialogue, sketchy characters (in every sense), and brevity limit its artistic value.
Evan Engle as Ned, gives an idealized performance as O’Neill would probably like to have seen himself: square jawed, ruggedly handsome, too tough to die and too strong to be denied. Engle has a bounce in his step and a smug smile that do not necessarily point towards suicide. However, the work is too brief to deeply develop Ned’s character, so Engle’s glib portrayal is not out of line.
Ken Beider gives a heart wrenching performance as down-and-out Jimmy. Having recently returned to the stage after an eight-year absence (in Beowulf’s “Sins of the Mother”), Beider’s physicality embodies a man who is slowly collapsing in on himself, day by day, drink by drink.
Mark Klugheit as Ned’s father, Malloy, David Swisher as the Major and Michael Fenlason as Nordstrom round out the cast. Nicole Scott, most recently seen starring in Beowulf’s “Radium Girls,” handles the directorial duties of the small play nicely.
“Exorcism” is part of Beowulf’s “The Next Theatre” series this summer. The initial offering, “Joan Is Burning,” a multi-media work, was successful enough to add an additional performance.
Following “Exorcism,” the series will continue with “Hope” by Jem Street on July 20-22 and July 27-28. The summer series will conclude with “The Body In The Bath,” adapted by Joan O’Dwyer based on Dorothy Sayer’s “Whose Body,” Fridays through Sundays, August 3-18.