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Midnight Rainbows
Stephen Buck Memorial Theatre
New Hope, Pennsylvania
July 8-17, 1999

by Patrick Nolan

Director: Daniel A. Drew
Eugene O'Neill - Russ Widdall


The Morning Call, July 10, 1999

Despite Flaws, "Midnight Rainbows" Will Fascinate O'Neill Fans


With the revival of Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," starring Kevin Spacey on Broadway, the timing couldn't be better for "Midnight Rainbows," which opened the 13th annual New Hope Performing Arts Festival Thursday night.

Emmy-winning playwright Patrick Nolan's one-man show starring Russ Widdall as O'Neill is a major work that the serious theater-goer should not avoid. While "Rainbows" at times has all the charm of cod liver oil, it is good medicine.

The play's title refers to O'Neill's sense of loss as he looks back on his life in a conversation with God at the moment after his death.

Of course, in O'Neill's time period, God is dead, too. O'Neill's ruminations on relationships: God and man, O'Neill and his own psyche, and the playwright and his three children become the leitmotif of the 90-minute play (presented with no intermission).

There's "no illusion; only the truth works here," O'Neill is told and relates thusly to the audience. As might be expected with such a weighty pronouncement, the play is heavy going, laden with a dictionary-thick list of "big issues": instinct, the soul, the nature of pain, the desire to live in the moment, and those moments of "wild joy," to name a few.

"Rainbows" has its lighter moments. "Isn't 'simply relate' an oxymoron?" we're asked. Or this, regarding Honduras, where "the bugs have PhD.s in human anatomy." The humor is often at the expense of the Irish, O'Neill's heritage, as in: "Irish actor: A contradiction or redundancy?"

Nolan has a gift for the incisive: "Einstein's most important question was 'Is the world a friendly place?' " -- more important than one of Einstein's better-known answers, E=MC2). There are a few lapses into the mundane: a reference to one who has "the spine of a chocolate éclair, for example.

But there's a deeper problem, one that Nolan couldn't avoid, given the play's subject and methodology. When are were hearing Nolan's voice and when are we hearing O'Neill's voice? More often than not, Nolan stays true to the spirit of O'Neill and, for the most part, "Rainbows" resonates with the recognition of truth.

Widdall gives a consummate performance in an extremely demanding role, fairly capturing the emotionally wounded, cauterized but not healed, troubled, alcohol-addicted playwright.

Director Daniel A. Drew seems to have helped shape the material and Widdall's performance successfully. However, whether it was his sole decision or not, the play's staging leaves much to be desired.

While the new auditorium is lovely for a high school, it lacks the steamy confines of previous festival venues, such as the private Solebury School and (going way back) the dance studio at Phillips Mill. The stage and hall are too large for the intimacies of a one-man show, through Widdal strives mightily to occupy them.

Going with a semi-representational set (mother's living room to the audience left, bar to the audience right, and heaven's courtroom railing centerstage) limits the play's power. A stark setting, a la "Waiting for Godot," in all black, gray or white, would have been more effective.

The use of projected slides of O'Neill's children works the first time but not the third or fourth. The lighting is minimal, with floods of white here and there.

Still, "Midnight Rainbows" is worth seeing. The play needs a trim here and there, some rearranging, perhaps an intermission, and more artistic staging. O'Neill fans especially will find it fascinating and illuminating.

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