The Eugene O'Neill Festival makes its return this month, with virtual presentations as well as live events, to celebrate the renowned playwright who penned some of his masterpieces while living 1937-44 at the Tao House he built in the hills of the San Ramon Valley.
O'Neill's "Beyond the Horizon" will be the festival centerpiece, with a newly produced film aired online as well as presented in person at the Old Barn theater at Tao House in two shows the last weekend in September.
Artistic director Eric Fraisher Hayes is currently working on the film on the grounds of the Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site in Danville.
"'Beyond the Horizon' was O'Neill's first great success," Hayes said. "It's over 100 years old now."
The drama unfolds as an unexpected romance creates turmoil at the Mayo family farm, in this American tragic drama. It was the first of O'Neill's plays to be performed on Broadway, and won him the first of his four Pulitzer prizes.
The play lends itself well to film, Hayes noted, because half of the scenes are outdoors, which has traditionally made it difficult to execute.
"The last year and a half I have taken stock of the beauty of the Las Trampas area," Hayes said. "For one scene, we are going way back into the hills for a perfect backdrop."
Festival chairwoman Teresa Morley explained that the live performance will be adapted from the film.
"It was Eric's great idea," Morley said. "He said, 'We've got this film, we've got these actors. How can we bring the audience in?'"
At the live performances, the action will begin in the barn and move outside for some scenes, going back and forth three or four times.
"We are excited about doing something different," Morley said. "It will be in the late afternoon because that is when the film scenes took place."
The barn performances will be limited to 65 audience members; usually seating capacity is 90-100.
"In 2019 we sold out 10 performances of 'Long Day's Journey into Night' -- over 900 tickets -- but we are asking, 'Where is that audience today?'" Morley said. "Our commitment is first and foremost to producing a quality experience with the film."
"Beyond the Horizon" was not originally scheduled for this year's festival, Morley said, but Hayes suggested it would be appropriate for the times.
"'Beyond the Horizon' is about possibilities and dreams. We are now emerging from the pandemic and taking the theme of possibilities and what might look different from where we were in 2019," Morley said.
This year's festival will also offer a theatrical lecture by Hayes, "Eugene O'Neill: 51 Plays in 51 Minutes," at 8 p.m. Sept. 30, and Oct. 1, at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley.
"I think of it as a theatrical lecture or crash course on Eugene O'Neill," Hayes said. "I want people to learn things about O'Neill. It is not strict entertainment although it will be entertaining."
He said he will touch on each of O'Neill's 51 plays somehow although not all equally.
"The trick for me is trying to strike the right balance where someone who knows nothing about Eugene O'Neill will learn something but also saying things to scholars that they will enjoy," Hayes said.
He has directed 27 of O'Neill's plays, read all 51 several times, and said he has definitely noticed similarities, such as the role played by characters going upstairs.
"There is a group of plays (in the beginning of his career) that end the same -- someone goes upstairs, then you hear a gunshot," Hayes said.
"What I love about O'Neill is he's so psychological -- his material has many, many layers. He's fantastically dramatic and deeply ironic and has a lot of food for thought in his plays, and that's what hooks me."
This year's festival includes a historic tour, "O'Neill's Danville," at 2 p.m. Sept. 18 (free, begins at Museum of the San Ramon Valley, no registration needed); a guided hike, "Hills of Solace," in the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness to Tao House, at 9 a.m. Oct. 2 (limited to 50, register at www.eugeneoneill.org); as well as a storytelling campaign that began last month urging everyone to submit their "Tiny Horizon Stories."
"Beyond the Horizon" on film will begin Oct. 2, with a film premiere party. Live performances will be at 4 p.m. Sept. 25-26. For tickets and to learn more, visit www.eugeneoneill.org.