Eugene O'Neill's 1924 play "Welded" was not one of his biggest hits during his time, or following his death. The upcoming production marks just the third time it's been brought to the stage, with the past two attempts at bringing it to life last century failing to hit the mark.
However, Eric Hayes, artistic director for the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, is seeking to change that in the first production of the play on the West Coast -- and in the 21st century.
"Both were considered not successful and neither of them followed that stage direction about the light," said Eric Hayes, of the past two efforts to bring "Welded" to the stage.
O'Neill's original stage directions in the play consist of the use of individual spotlights on each actor, meant to function as "auras of egoism" and symbols of the characters' sense of isolation and alienation that the play intends to capture. The unconventional use of lighting marks the play as a product of O'Neill's earlier experimental phase, often contrasted with the later work that would cause him to be known for his emphasis on realism.
According to Hayes, however, O'Neill's experimental phase also reveals a playwright who was interested in showcasing the way the world really is, albeit through more unfamiliar theatrical means.
In addition to incorporating O'Neill's "auras of egoism" via the use of spotlights, Hayes is seeking to explore the use of light and interaction in the hopes of engaging the audience as active participants in the performance, and as a way for the actors to interact with each other.
"I want to see if I can find a way to pull the audience into that so they just don't feel passive," Hayes added. "Hopefully if I succeed, I will find a way to bring it full circle and have the audience feel they're part of the play also."
In keeping with his interpretation of O'Neill's experimental work as "based on the world" equally if not more so than his later work in the realist tradition, Hayes said he hoped for this use of lighting to reveal deep truths about the world in the way he understands O'Neill as having intended to throughout his "experimental" phase.
"I think there's some message in this to be said about the way we behave when we're in the light versus the way we behave when we're outside of the light," Hayes said. "It's really easy to criticize somebody when they're in the light and you're not. I think all of us can point to somebody else and say 'wow we wouldn't do that', but if the light's on you, maybe you would."
The plot of "Welded" seeks to shed light on egoism by centering on a newlywed couple who come to consider and reflect on the roles that the marriage assigns to them by default, and their own expectations for the future of their relationship. It's widely thought to be inspired by O'Neill's second marriage to the British-born writer Agnes Boulton, who he had two children with prior to ending the marriage to be with his third wife, Carlotta Monterey.
"Basically, at the start of the play you have this couple who have this sort of idealized vision of what marriage is, and one of them starts to have questions, starts to doubt, and starts to break away," Hayes said. "It's kind of a meditation on roles we play with each other."
In addition to reflecting on the roles people play within relationships, particularly those rooted in longstanding institutions and traditions such as marriage, Hayes said the production would seek to emphasize the expectations that come from those roles, and the psychological impact of having one's expectations thwarted.
"I'm playing with the idea that characters come into a scene thinking they have control of the scene, and as they find out the person is more complex than they realized, the idea of what role you are in, a scene breaks down a bit," Hayes said.
Hayes added that one area where these points become clear in the plot of "Welded" is through the wife, Eleanor's, exploration of what her role is meant to be as a married woman in the early 20th century.
"What is a good wife? Really, like what is that? It seems to tap into notions of unflinching service and trustworthiness and maybe subjugating your own desires and doing all those things to make your man successful," Hayes said.
On the second night of its three-night run, Beth Wynstra, the production's dramaturg, is set to more deeply explore this theme in particular in a free talk on marriage and O'Neill's work ahead of the Saturday night show.
"She's particularly tuned into ideas of marriage back in the 1920s," Hayes said. "Her specialty in this case is to kind of show how America saw itself and thought about itself in its plays."
Although the production, and Wynstra's talk, are influenced by the time O'Neill was living and writing in, nearly 100 years ago in the case of "Welded," Hayes said that these themes are just as relevant to today's audiences.
"I am fascinated with the notion that people go into every situation with a lot of assumptions," Hayes said. "Especially these days, we have a lot more information. We have all kinds of ideas and I think we don't really understand each other, and we always prove more complex than people go into a situation thinking of us. It's like we're meeting people as if they're the tips of icebergs now and we don't really know what the heck else is going on."
Hayes' production of "Welded" is set to run from Jan. 14 through 16 at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, with shows at 7 p.m. each night. Wynstra's talk on marriage and O'Neill is set for 4 p.m. on Saturday (Jan. 15). Tickets are $25 and available at www.eugeneoneill.org.