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Festival celebrates Eugene O'Neill

19th annual event coming to Danville -- and New Ross, Ireland

The festival, presented by the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, Tao House, runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 30 and will include plays, tours and music as always. But for the first time, this year's event is dubbed "One Festival, Two Countries," and it will continue in New Ross, Ireland, from Oct. 11-14. Official delegations from the two cities are attending each other's celebrations. (Graphic design by Talia Nakhjiri)

The 19th annual Eugene O'Neill Festival in Danville next month will celebrate the playwright who received the Nobel Prize for Literature as well as four Pulitzer Prizes for his work -- some of it written while he lived there from 1937-44.

"There are still O'Neill groupies around -- we will get people from San Francisco and from Monterey," said Beverly Lane, past president of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation. "This festival has become a magnet for people who want to see all of his plays performed."

O'Neill and his wife Carlotta Monterey used his Nobel Prize award money of $40,000 to purchase 158 acres in the west Danville hills and build their Tao House, blending his interest in Eastern thought and her love of Asian art with Spanish-style bricks. Here in his study overlooking the oak-studded hills, he wrote his greatest plays: "The Iceman Cometh," "Long Day's Journey into Night," "A Touch of the Poet" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten." The site is now managed by the National Park Service.

The festival, presented by the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, Tao House, runs from Aug. 31 to Sept. 30 and will include plays, tours and music as always. But for the first time, this year's event is dubbed "One Festival, Two Countries," and it will continue in New Ross, Ireland, from Oct. 11-14. Official delegations from the two cities are attending each other's celebrations.

"The one thing that explains more than anything about me is the fact that I'm Irish," Eugene O'Neill once said, and the Irish embrace him.

"Eugene O'Neill's work is very popular in Ireland, especially his earlier works," Eugene O'Neill Foundation president Dan McGovern said. "His great plays of his later period were written at Tao House."

Last year both McGovern and Lane visited Ireland to attend the Eugene O'Neill Society International Conference and made contacts that led to New Ross and Danville becoming Friendship Cities.

Eugene O'Neill's father James was 5 years old in 1847 when his family emigrated from Tinneranny, Ireland, to America.

"The New Ross people have this wonderful plaque honoring James O'Neill -- and mentioning Eugene, too -- because James departed from that port," Lane said.

James O'Neill became a famous Shakespearean actor but he ended up with a lucrative career playing "The Count of Monte Cristo" and starred in the 1913 film, which will be shown at the New Ross festival.

But first, in Danville, on Sept. 22, Lane will lead a historic tour of downtown focusing on Eugene O'Neill. These walks have been part of the festival from the beginning, said Lane, who is also a former mayor of Danville.

"My tour just wanders from the Eugene O'Neill Commemorative (on Front Street) and I point out a couple of historic buildings and talk about what Danville was like around 1940 (when the population was 2,120) and what the O'Neills would have experienced as they drove through downtown," she said.

Eugene and Carlotta arrived at their new home with at least four servants, Lane explained, but after Pearl Harbor was bombed, they left to become soldiers and wartime workers.

"They kept losing their servants," Lane said, "so they found themselves somewhat isolated up there. Carlotta, who had never cooked in her life, ended up doing some of the cooking."

They were not in good health, either, and finally had to leave their beloved but isolated home.

"There are rumors that Eugene O'Neill used to come down to Elliott's and belly up to the bar but I disagree," Lane said. "He was committed to not drinking. Evidently one of his doctors said, 'Do you want to write or do you want to drink?'"

Lane promised to reveal surprises on the tour, which indeed is dubbed "Secrets of O'Neill's Danville." She enjoys the tours because they mix newcomers and O'Neill experts.

"We have a lot of give and take, and we end up at the museum, where we have a few things on our permanent display,'" said Lane, who is also Museum of the San Ramon Valley curator.

This year the Danville festival is presenting "Hughie," written at Tao House, in the house's Old Barn theater. Eric Fraisher Hayes is directing, following O'Neill's stage directions to reveal the thoughts of one of the characters.

The second festival play is Arthur Miller's "All My Sons," a 1947 Tony Award winner, which will be shown at the Village Theater in downtown Danville.

"Arthur Miller, along with Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill are probably the best playwrights of the first half of the 20th century," McGovern said.

O'Neill is credited with creating a new American theater that explores themes such as the power of the unconscious, complex family relationships, and the effect of materialism on the American soul. The festival will explore how he prepared the way for the writings of Arthur Miller.

"'All My Sons' was Miller's first commercial success," McGovern noted.

After its Danville run, "Hughie" actors will travel to perform in the festival at New Ross. Also at the Irish festival, O'Neill's four one-act sea plays will be performed on the Dunbrody, a full-scale replica of the "famine" ships that brought James O'Neill to America from the same dock.

"This is their inaugural Eugene O'Neill Festival and they are hoping it will become an annual event," McGovern said. "We are hoping to bring their plays over here and send ours over there."

"Eugene O'Neill is still one of the hottest tickets on Broadway," McGovern added.

Denzel Washington recently starred on Broadway in "The Iceman Cometh," which was nominated for eight Tony Awards, and two years ago, Jessica Lange won a Tony for her role in "Long Day's Journey into Night."

But O'Neill enthusiasts often come to Danville for productions.

"What is happening in September with the festival is putting Danville on the map," Lane said.

'One Festival, Two Countries'

What: 19th annual Eugene O'Neill Festival

When: Aug. 31-Sept. 30 in Danville

Oct. 11-14 in New Ross, Ireland

Plays: * "All My Sons" by Arthur Miller, Village Theatre, 233 Front St., Danville; Aug. 31-Sept. 16; $25-$35

* "Hughie" by Eugene O'Neill, the Old Barn, Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site; Sept. 21-30. Special shuttles leave from Museum of the San Ramon Valley, 205 Railroad Ave.; $40. Picnic suppers can be ordered to enjoy at Tao House grounds, prepared by Sideboard, including wine; $25.

Concert: "Turlough O'Carolan: Ireland's National Composer in Music and Song" featuring classical guitarist/composer David Creevy and singer-composer Melanie O'Reilly; 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 20; Village Theater, 233 Front St.; $15-$30.

Hills of Solace -- Hike from downtown to Tao House; 9 a.m., Sunday, Sept. 9; meet at Eugene O'Neill Commemorative Park, across from library, 400 Front St., Danville; hike 3.1 miles to Tao House; tour of site guided by a naturalist; return to town by shuttle. Register by Sept. 4 at www.eugeneoneill.org.

"Secrets of O'Neill's Danville" -- Free walking tour led by Beverly Lane. Begins at 2 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 22, at Eugene O'Neill Commemorative Park. No need to register.

Talk: 6:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 10, Dan McGovern, president of the board of the Eugene O'Neill Foundation, will give a preview lecture on the O'Neill Festivals in Danville and New Ross, Ireland. Danville Public Library, 400 Front St.

Other Eugene O'Neill Foundation will offer a complimentary Destination Danville book of shopping and dining discounts and specials during the festival.

Tickets: Go to www.eugeneoneill.org to buy tickets, sign up for the hike or learn more about the festival events.

Exploring Danville

* Tao House is open to the public via a shuttle that leaves from Museum of the San Ramon Valley. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/euon.

* Councilwoman Karen Stepper will lead downtown walking tours on Fridays, Sept. 21 and Oct. 19, leaving the Village Theatre, 233 Front St. The tours end at 7:30 p.m. with a glass of wine at a local restaurant; donation of $5 is requested. RSVP to 837-3750 or srvmuseum@sbglobal.net.

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