In its fifth year, O’Neill at Yale brings an impromptu “Tomorrow &Variations” to Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library to preen and perfect itself for a more formal performance at the Long Wharf Theatre on Mother’s Day. Consisting of one O’Neill work and two “variations-in-progress,” director Stephen Kennedy Murphy said that the readings at Beinecke were not for critical examination, but simply a practice-run to highlight the value of relationships between Yale and the downtown New Haven area. Though the set may be next to non-existent and the readings raw, the performance is better than most Yale shows when they are polished. So, commence the review!
Joel Maguen ’02 plays Art in “Tomorrow,” a short story/monologue that foreshadows one of the more famous plays O’Neill would later write “The Iceman Cometh.”
With Maguen cometh a highly dramatic scene of two alcoholic roommates; one is trying to jumpstart his stagnant life, the other has resigned himself to alcohol and self-loathing. Jimmy, the narrator’s doomed roommate, has a habit of putting everything off until tomorrow.
When Maguen graduates in a few weeks, Yale undergraduate drama will lose one of its finest actors. He evokes the image of Robert DeNiro in “Taxi,” if DeNiro were a little more cocky. While Maguen’s Art may be a little too loud even for a perpetual drunk, and far too punkish for any O’Neill character, Maguen’s instinct to play Art as overly raucous to is right on target.
Alcohol is the answer to Art’s every problem. He yells at the most trivial things, and constantly mocks the weaknesses of others, weaknesses that he refuses to confront in himself. He reads Jimmy, as seen through Art, even better. A broken man whose shady past drove him to drink and to an inescapable sadness, Jimmy is the tragic hero that one hates to love, knowing the hero will be lost.
Elizabeth Meriwether ’04, Maguen’s co-star in the semester’s earlier tour-de-force “Twelfth Night,” assumes a different role in the O’Neill project. Intended to imitate the style and force of “Tomorrow,” her play, “Geranium,” is both the shortest and weakest of the night’s pieces. The play tells, rather than shows, the tensions between a mother who is about 20 years past the end of her rope, and her over-dependent, middle-aged daughter, Olive, who is a struggling painter and whiny leech. The problem with Olive’s character is that she does not speak with a frustrated 39-year-old’s voice.
Robin Callahan plays Olive like a PTA mother who has regressed into a spoiled, infantile teenager. The voice of the character belongs to a teenager, and the entirely miscast Callahan is annoying and shallow, when she should be a younger, more sympathetic, if immature, character. Callahan is the project manager of O’Neill After School Improvisational Scriptwriting, a program in which local youth write new plays that use the series of performances at Beinecke as a guide.
Kathleen O’Donovan as the mother, on the other hand, is simply spectacular. She is Jessica Tandy as Jessica Tandy only wishes she could have been. Finally, while the script is cute and interesting, the characters do not have the multiple layers that young O’Neill created, nor is the plot fresh and mesmerizing. “Geranium” is more a deviation on, than a variation of “Tomorrow.”
“Reality Women,” in contrast, defies expectations. Wearily entering into a heated conversation between a 19-year-old pregnant Yalie and a 13-year-old New Haven black girl with her baby ready to pop out, one does not expect to be touched by this roller coaster of issues and emotions. Still a child herself, Lavisia may be poor, but she has no doubts about her decisions. She is pro-life, religious, and a perfect foil to the jaded, study-obsessed Latina Maria, whose mother was in a similar situation when she was sixteen.
The actresses do a fine job. Ilia Del Mar Medina ’05, who plays Maria, needs to look at the audience more, or at least be positioned so that her face can be seen. Still, her reading is gorgeous. Her voice changes from hot to cold, from sharply pointed accusations to a tenderness when speaking about the future possibility of bearing a child, and her concern for Lavisia. Maria pretends to be sure of herself, without being very convincing, and Medina portrays these insecurities well. This is a difficult task possibly remedied by the fact that Medina co-wrote the script.
Ajua Leigh Bobo is fresh. She has the voice of an earnest teenager down flat. She is so reminiscent of one’s younger sister, one cannot help but be both worried for and amazed by this girl who is nine months pregnant and still so innocent.
All in all, “Reality Women” is engrossing, a worthy finale for the set.
Murphy said he wanted to create “a stage at Yale for the New Haven problems.” Then he said, “instead of [Yalies] being intimidated by New Haven, they get to stand on its shoulders.”
Murphy and his talented cast and crew have succeeded. Make your Mother’s Day, “Tomorrow.”