If you have never been to playwright Eugene O'Neill's home in the west hills of Danville, it should be at the top of your list of things to do after the pandemic. In my humble opinion.
O'Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey built Tao House with money he received in 1936 for the Nobel Prize for Literature and they lived there from 1937-44. Those years proved extremely productive, resulting in "Long Day's Journey into Night" and four other significant works.
The house and its 14 remaining acres now comprise the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site, and in normal times, visitors are shuttled for tours and plays from the Museum of the San Ramon Valley.
But for now, while the site is closed, poke around www.eugeneoneill.org, with its historical write-ups, links to plays, old photos and more. Its newest offering is "The Ghosts of Tao House," a video series being created by Eric Fraisher Hayes, artistic director for the Eugene O'Neill Foundation.
"A lot of people like ghosts, or the idea of ghosts," Hayes said. "I was intrigued by the notion that a ghost might lead someone down the path to the seriousness of what O'Neill says in his plays. I was looking for ways to get people interested in him."
Hayes' premise is that O'Neill's characters sprang from his imagination and lived with him at Tao House -- those from past plays as well as those from works in progress -- and their spirits well may linger.
"Eugene O'Neill was a haunted man, and perhaps Tao House is a haunted house," Hayes said.
He has been rehearsing and shooting the actors/ghosts onsite, one by one, at outside spots that highlight each particular storyline.
"I try to pick their brains and figure out where they're going with the character and what would be a good background," Hayes said.
I was tickled to learn that Hayes grew up in Danville and went to San Ramon Valley High, but at that point he was not familiar with O'Neill or Tao House. However, he was on the cross-country team, which took regular runs on the Las Trampas ridge.
"I knew there was a playwright's home up there with a dead dog that had a grave," Hayes recalled.
Said "dead dog" was the O'Neills' beloved Blemie, a Dalmatian who has a tombstone on the site. In 2018, Hayes presented O'Neill's short play, "Hughie," in the Old Barn theater and, to fill out the program, dramatized "The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog," which O'Neill penned during the Dalmatian's last days.
Hayes earned an MFA in acting in Chicago, where he stayed for another eight years before moving back to Danville in 2004. He was artistic director for Role Players Ensemble from 2010-19, and in 2008 joined the board of directors of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, Tao House.
Before joining the board, Hayes recalled, he read all 51 of O'Neill's plays, in order. During the pandemic he has re-read them, this time taking notes, and is currently working on a presentation called, "Eugene O'Neill: 51 Plays in 51 Minutes."
"I want to cover the whole canon from a director's perspective but it would be light and playful, too," Hayes said. "I love the seriousness of his plays but I also personally think he's very ironic."
Hayes drives to Tao House each day to his office in the Old Barn while the park rangers only appear periodically since the house is locked up and the site is closed to visitors.
"It's been a godsend during the pandemic, having this beautiful outdoor place to go," Hayes said.
The views of Mount Diablo to the east and the Las Trampas hills to the west are not only inspiring in themselves but add to his connection with the playwright, he noted, who enjoyed the same timeless panoramas.
The first in the series of "The Ghosts of Tao House" as well as an introductory video by Hayes are on the website now, and more of the five-minute ghost videos will follow.
And, when the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site reopens, be sure to go tour the home, enjoy the views -- and perhaps visit with the ghosts in person.
Editor's note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for the Pleasanton Weekly. Her column, "Valley Views," will appear in the paper on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.