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Research and Rehearsal

Roundabout Theatre Company Blog March 25th, 2016

When a group of artists begin work on a play, whether it is old or new, by the time they reach performances they’ve become something of a mini-expert on the play. As the associate director, I try to provide as much dramaturgical information as I can for the company. There is a wide variety of research that must be done preparing for a play like this from finding the meaning of references such as “I expect a salary of at least one large iron-man at the end of the week..” which Jamie says in act one (it’s a silver dollar coin), to finding out what O’Neill means when he refers to Cathleen (the maid and only non-Tryone featured in the play) as the “second girl.” What kind of maid is she, does she have any actual skills, what does the text tell us about her and what complimentary information can we find to best inform the actor who is playing her? 

In the case of the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone (a stand in for Eugene O’Neill’s own mother), one must dig deep in pursuit of what events have led this woman to the desperate place she is when we meet her in the play. How did she become addicted to morphine? How do people hooked on morphine behave in public versus in private? What did we know about morphine and its dangers in 1912. We’ve been able to discover quite a bit through medical journals and sanatorium advertisements from the period, as well as from a session with an addiction specialist who came in to meet with the company. It is certainly not easy work, but when you see the role embodied by Jessica Lange, you will see a seamless integration of all of this information as well as her indelible interpretation of the character herself.

I’m writing this during the lunch break of the last day of week four in our rehearsal process. We spent our first week at the table poring over the text, answering some questions while posing many more and beginning to wrap our minds around the journey these five characters and the extraordinary actors who embody them will be taking over the next few months. In the subsequent weeks we put the play on its feet, setting the blocking and continually refining our understanding of the text. Next week, we’ll put the acts together and eventually run the whole beast from start to finish several times before we move to the American Airlines Theatre for tech.

This play, though fiction, is largely about Eugene O’Neill and his family. In our exploration of these people we’ve found Robert M. Dowling’s biography Eugene O’Neill: A Life In Four Acts extremely useful (and highly entertaining - O’Neill led a wild life...). We were surprised on the first day of rehearsal when each of us came in with our own copy. It’s well worth a read this spring as Long Day’s Journey Into Night returns to Broadway.

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