By Joseph Hurley
THE PERSONAL EQUATION, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Stephen Kennedy Murphy. Starring Ralph Waite, Daniel McDonald and Kristin Taylor. At Provincetown Playhouse, 133 MacDougal St., NYC. Through Aug. 19.
Among the world’s ranking playwrights, Eugene O’Neill almost certainly led the pack when it came to destroying, abandoning, or otherwise betraying his own work.
As his moods darkened in his final years, and the discomfort of his Parkinson’s Disease increased, O’Neill consigned more and more of his work to the fire in the grate of his home in the Connecticut countryside.
Almost certainly burned were segments of the long series of plays the playwright had outlined as a study of life along the old Boston Post Road, an ambitious venture to which the dramatist called "A Tale of Possessors Self-Dispossessed." Some of the little-known earliest plays fared somewhat better and survived, saved from the fire, perhaps, because even their author had forgotten about them.
For the last year or so, the Playwrights Theater of New York, under its artistic director and producer, Stephen Kennedy Murphy, has been dedicated to what it calls its "Festival of O’Neill," staging all 49 of the playwright’s works in chronological order.
Playwrights Theater is kicking off its ambitious new season, to which is attached the subtitle, "Year Three: The Student Playwright," with an extremely elaborate and well-conceived inaugural production of a dense four-act play, "The Personal Equation." It is a work O’Neill wrote in the spring of 1915, when he was a student at Harvard.
O’Neill’s journals indicate that when he wrote the play, he called it "The Second Engineer," but then came up with the title under which this strange, fascinating "lost" work is currently being produced at the Playwrights Theater’s home at New York University’s Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village.
Murphy’s production is evidently the most ambitious O’Neill undertaking in the Playwrights Theater’s three-season history.
In a way, in "The Personal Equation" it is possible to see a good deal of what O’Neill was, both as a youthful idealist and as the towering figure he would one day become.
"The Personal Equation" concerns a tragic father-son conflict attached to founding of a maritime union O’Neill called the "IWE," the "International Workers of the Earth," and which he intended as a seagoing, Hoboken-based branch of the notoriously praised and damned IWW, the International Workers of the World. The major characters fall out over whether the son should join the army at the start of World War I, or take sides with the anarchist cause, which was just then a major source of public and private disputation.
The play’s four acts, divided into five scenes, are set in the Hoboken headquarters of the IWE, in the home of Thomas Perkins, the character played with clarity and integrity by Ralph Waite, and, after a brief intermission, on the fireman’s fo’castle of a ship, the San Francisco, docked in Liverpool, in the ship’s engine room, and, finally, in a Liverpool hospital room.
Amazingly, Murphy and his design team — Roger Hanna for sets, Meganne George for costumes, Matthew E. Adelson for lighting and Jill B.C. Du Boff for sound, have realized the vast bulk of O’Neill’s specifications, despite the Provincetown’s limited facilities and Playwrights Theater’s restricted budget. All this, with a complement of 19 actors, playing a variety of stokers, seamen, doctors, nurses and the like.
Heading the cast, alongside Waite, familiar from TV’s "The Waltons," is Daniel McDonald, as Perkins’s beloved but doomed son, Tom.
"The Personal Equation" displays much of O’Neill’s much-vaunted early awkwardness as a writer but also the earnestness and power of his thinking. In no way is this a fossilized remnant from the early stages of an authorial career that somehow underwent a miracle. On the contrary, O’Neill is present in "The Personal Equation" very nearly as powerfully as he is in the early sea plays.
For anyone even remotely interested in Eugene O’Neill, a trip to the Provincetown Playhouse and "The Personal Equation" is well worth the slight effort required.