Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh and Moon For The Misbegotten are some of Eugene O’Neill’s best-known works, but another is rising to join their celebrated ranks.
Hughie, written in 1942 but not premiered until 1958, follows the life of down-and-out salesman Erie Smith in the lobby of a dilapidated hotel over the course of one evening. It’s a sharp piece featuring just two characters but a peopled, busy history as related by Erie, who relates his relationship with the former (unseen) clerk of the title. Hughie is a unique little piece with a particularly timely quality. The Alley Theatre Workshop (ATW) hopes to bring the contemporary nature of the play to light with its latest production, running at The Theatre Centre now through March 3rd in Toronto.
The play had its last big Canadian production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2008, with actor Brian Dennehy in the role of Erie. Director/actor/author David Ferry, who was then performing at the Festival in playwright Morris Panych’s stage adaptation of Moby Dick, saw it. “I wasn't totally knocked out by that production,” he admits.
But the magic of the play, with its detailed script and poetic descriptions of the desk clerk’s internal thoughts, enchanted him. Actor Michael Kash, who runs ATW, approached Ferry about directing the work in 2010 when he was directing John Philip Shanley’sWhere’s My Money. Thought he was interested in playing the title role of Erie himself, Ferry considered Kash’s request.
“It’s been a dream of Michael's to do this play for years.”
That dream began for Michael Kash in New York City, where the actor lived and worked for a decade. “I saw Pacino workshop it, then when it opened on Broadway at Circle In The Square (in 1996). I just loved the piece so much. I was a complete Pacino freak at the time and saw why he's so great. With O'Neill's script, it was a match made in heaven.”
Then and there, the actor decided to “tuck it away in my back pocket” for a future production. “I was only thirty -the character is forty-five, and fifty is when Pacino did it. I had to wait and have a few birthdays!”
Now his time is nigh. Kash, having acted onstage in old classics like Hedda Gabbler and modern ones like Trout Stanley, as well as TV shows like The Murdoch Mysteries and Blue Murder, is getting his chance. “We're… not trying to compare,” he says, referring to past productions of the play, “I just want to embrace what I saw... and (Pacino’s staging) serves as a benchmark.”
Part of the work’s appeal is the way O’Neill integrates the language of his time into the story and uses it to paint Erie’s world in surprisingly vivid colors. In other words, it’s great to read, but sometimes difficult to act. “The way a lot of the time period is slang, for me it was a real character challenge,” Kash admits. “He's taking you into his world through his writing. You go on his ride - he's that good. If we do our job right, it'll be a very quick hour. Quick but full.”
Alley Theatre Workshop
O’Neill’s language has been a guiding light for director Ferry as well. Canadian audiences may know him for his work behind the scenes in the much-lauded 2005 production (and 2009 remount) of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ wordy The Last Days Of Judas Iscariot in Toronto, and for playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman in Victoria, B.C. in 2009. With Hughie, he’s enjoying delving deeply into O’Neil’s words, and finding context in his vivid, detailed descriptions of the desk clerk’s thoughts.
“Eugene says he never saw it as being staged but as being read,” he observes, “and Pacino has said he would’ve loved to do the play with the internal thoughts of the clerk’s mic’d or recorded so you could hear them.” That’s just what the ATW production of Hughie aims to do. Using creative projections that portray the clerk’s thoughts in real time, Ferry sets O’Neill’s work on the cusp of the 1929 stock market crash, and integrates the influence of Prohibition-era laws and the Harlem renaissance into the dilapidated world of the hotel, casting the desk clerk as an African-American (played by former Degrassi Junior High actor Dean Ifill). “The image of the hotel in the script, of it crumbling, started leading me into what's happening with the recession today,” he says.
While the relationship between Erie and the desk clerk may seen one-sided, Ferry was determined to explore its possibilities, finding it more rich than anyone might’ve imagined. He was fascinated by “this person who works as a servant and clerk in this hotel, of him being an African-American, and where that leads forty years later, how society changes... there’s a whole lot of societal stuff coming down the pipe. It’s an interesting context in which to direct.”
Erie himself remains a tragic figure too, one that many might relate to, especially in tough economic times.
“He is quite a lonely character,” Kash says of the role, “not that we all have to have that degree of hand-to-mouth existence or loneliness, but at some point in our lives, we all have times of real hardship, whether it's heartbreak or financial stress or anything else. I’m also a father, and there's mention in the script (Erie) potentially got a woman pregnant, so... it all ties in to life experience and what we go through to survive.”