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New Play Vindicates Eugene O'neill's Mother

Karen Gibson as Ella O'Neill, mother of Eugene O'Neill, and James Nugent as Archie, the retarded handyman
by Jonathan Slaff

"Miles to Babylon" by Ann Harson sheds new light on Ella O'Neill's drug addiction and runs counter to her scathing depiction in "Long Day's Journey into Night."

Eugene O'Neill was not kind to his mother in his memoir drama, "Long Day's Journey into Night," depicting her as a hapless morphine addict with no hope of recovery.

Fifty years later, Ann Harson presents a gentler portrait punctuated with courage in her play, "Miles to Babylon," which will premiere at American Theatre of Actors from October 12 to 29. According to many accounts, Mrs. O'Neill became addicted to morphine following the birth of Eugene, her youngest son, and became clean 25 years later in a convent. Tom Thornton directs; the cast features Broadway veterans Karen Gibson and James Nugent.

In Harson's version, Ella chooses to face her demon at the Catholic boarding school she attended as a girl, where she had become close to the head nun. She is shocked to discover her mentor had died and been replaced by her schoolgirl rival. The new Reverend Mother seems as concerned with extracting money from the wealthy Mrs. O'Neill as helping to fight her disease.

However, Ella submits to incarceration in her bedroom with the convent's retarded handyman, who is ordered to prevent her, at any cost, from injecting the morphine she has stashed in her closet. As her withdrawal symptoms increase, Mrs. O'NeiIl becomes willing to do anything to reach the drug--even seduce her captor. Other characters include a visionary young postulant who befriends Ella and symbolizes the daughter she never had.

Ann Harson said the saga of Ella O'Neill particularly interested her, in part because of the dearth of roles for middle-aged women. "Miles to Babylon" was a finalist in four national contests, including the Drama League of New York playwriting competition. Harson won first prize for drama at the Philadelphia Writers Conference for her comedy "Hollyhocks," later renamed "Rabbit Stew" and produced in New York. Holly Hunter played the central character in an early reading of Ms. Harson's "Feast Day," subsequently entitled "Holy Heist" and presented at the Samuel Beckett Theatre. Harson trained at the HB Studio, Columbia Pictures Television and the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop. She is a recipient of grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and was a finalist for its Screenwriters Fellowship for "The Amazing Nellie Bly." She holds a master's degree from New York University.

Various accounts of Ella's addiction can be found in books by Louis Schaeffer, Stephen A. Black and Arthur and Barbara Gelb. For a concise online overview on the subject, see an essay in the Eugene O'Neill Newsletter by Stephen A. Black: http://www.eoneill.com/library/newsletter/ix_1/ix-1e.htm.

The actors are Karen Gibson (Ella O'Neill), James Nugent (Archie, the retarded handyman), Angela Della Ventura (Mother Dolores), Rachel Schwartz (Catherine, a postulant) and Denise Fiore (Amelia, a postulant). Set design is by Michael Anania; costume design is by Alice Bryant; lighting design is by Alex Moore; sound design is by Elliot Lanes.

Karen Gibson has appeared in four Broadway productions, including "Rex" with Nicole Williamson and the revival of "My Fair Lady." She also toured nationally in "A Little Night Music," sang in a musical tribute to Alan Jay Lerner at Lincoln Center, and portrayed Amanda Off-Broadway in "The Glass Menagerie."

James Nugent performed in the Broadway production of Larry Shue's "The Nerd" (directed by Charles Nelson Reilly) and is a founding member of the Pearl Theater Company. He also has appeared at Playwrights Horizons, the Hudson Guild Theater and with the Negro Ensemble Company and New Group. Regional credits include Arena Stage and the Kennedy Center in Washington. He spent four years with Michael J. Fox on "Spin City."

Rachel Schwartz performed in "The Diary of Anne Frank" at the Paper Mill Playhouse and with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in "Antony and Cleopatra," directed by Robert Benedetti, and "Comedy of Errors." Locally, she has appeared at the Abingdon Theatre and New York Theatre Source.

Angela Della Ventura appeared Off-off Broadway at the 18th Street Playhouse, Wings Theater and with The Shaw Project in "The Captain's Boy."

Denise Fiori trained at the British American Academy of the Dramatic Arts and HB Studio. Her performance venues range from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to the Hudson Guild Theatre.

A number of prominent actors have portrayed Ella in various readings of this play, including the late Geraldine Fitzgerald (for O'Neill's birthday celebration at the family's summer home, Monte Cristo Cottage in Waterford, CT), Kathleen Chalfant and Maria Tucci.

Director Tom Thornton is a longtime veteran of the London stage and regional theatre. Most recently he staged "Preacherocity" by Larry Herold at The Christian Bates Theater in London. He is founder/director of the Times Square Playwrights.

Evensong Associates (producer) was created by Sheila Moran, a former sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press, for the development of new plays and musicals. She was associate producer of "Life Anonymous" by the late N. Richard Nash Off-Broadway and shepherded a new musical with book and lyrics by Nash about St. Francis of Assisi through various staged readings and the ASCAP workshop.

October 12 to October 29, 2006
Presented by Evensong Associates at American Theatre of Actors (ATA) Sargent Theatre
314 W. 54th at 8th Ave. (4th floor theatre)
Tuesday through Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 3:00 pm
Website: www.milestobabylon.com
$18; box office: SMARTTIX (212) 868-4444; www.smarttix.com.
Runs two hours with one intermission.


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