BOSTON — New Repertory Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s harrowing play, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” is a homecoming of sorts. While originally from New York, O’Neill has major ties to Boston.
And, as it turns out, the director and one of the actors in this new production have some personal, almost eerie connections to the playwright and this classic family drama.
Playwright O’Neill’s life was as dramatic as his plays — full of euphoric highs and torturous lows. He experienced the gamut during his stints in the Boston area.
“He spent his formative years in Provincetown and lived there and had his first theatrical successes there,” director Scott Edmiston said.
O’Neill also studied playwriting at Harvard before finding fame on Broadway. And “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” had its world premiere here at the Wilbur Theatre. After years of creative struggles, family conflict and debilitating illness, he died in Boston.
“He died in Boston in what is now a Boston University dormitory,” Edmiston said. “And he’s buried here in Boston.”
Some people believe O’Neill’s ghost haunts that BU dorm. When Edmiston agreed to direct “Long Day’s Journey” for the New Rep, he was compelled to pay his respects at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
“The day before rehearsal I was very full of the play and I was trying to process all of my feelings and ideas about it and I thought, I need to take a pilgrimage,” Edmiston said, “and so I just hopped into my car and drove over to his grave and just said, ‘Gene, I’m going to my best by your play, I promise.’ But I do feel a kind of spiritual energy around him here in Boston.”
Spiritual energy seems to hover over this production, too. Even the set is ghostlike. Everything — the floors, walls, furniture, costumes –- are all white. And every character is haunted by the past.
“All families have a lot of sorrows and fears and regrets,” Edmiston explained. “And we tend to carry them privately over a long period of time. In ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ what he did is he took all of those sorrows of his family and condensed them, theatrically, into one day.”
The play is semi-autobiographical. The father, James Tyrone, is an Irish actor – like O’Neill’s own father. In a cosmic coincidence, the actor who plays the son, Jamie, in New Rep’s production was also “born into a life of theater.”
“I don’t have the raging alcoholic relationship with my father that is described in the play,” Lewis Wheeler said with a laugh, “but, my dad, who was a director and worked in theater his whole life, worked on this original Broadway version in 1956. So when I auditioned for this play last year and got the call back and then got the part I was thrilled and overjoyed, as was my dad. He was just so proud of me.”
But sadly David Wheeler won’t see his son on stage. The much-loved director died this past January. He founded the Theatre Company of Boston in the 1960s and helped launch the careers of a number of actors including Stockard Channing, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and James Woods.
Since the early 1980s, David Wheeler directed more than 20 productions for the American Repertory Theater. Looking back, Lewis Wheeler said growing up amidst all of this made his childhood pretty unconventional.
“It was wonderful and crazy. We felt like this sort of circus family, you know, because we were just doing this weird stuff,” Lewis Wheeler said. “But the great thing was being able to go to these plays when I was 6, 7, 8, that you know, I would just be backstage, hanging around, watching Al Pacino do his thing and just hanging out.”
Lewis Wheeler admits he misses his father terribly. Being in this particular play at this moment in time is both challenging and oddly comforting.
“Yeah, dad is sort of watching this from somewhere, and I do hear his comments in my ear now and then about things I’m doing,” Lewis Wheeler said, wiping a tear from his eye. “On the one hand I feel very proud in sort of honoring his legacy, but it’s also just very hard that he’s not here to be a part of that.”
For Lewis Wheeler, taking on “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a way to honor the legacy of his father and Eugene O’Neill.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is currently being staged at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown through April 22. A memorial service for David Wheeler will be held on May 14 at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge.