YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN. Prominent artists return to the lonely and compelling world of Eugene O'Neill's plays - and to their own seminal, bittersweet encounters with his work

OUTSIDE the high paned windows, a stiff breeze off Long Island Sound bends the bare trees in the waning March afternoon. But inside the weathered stone buildings of the Yale University School of Drama there is a different wind blowing, one rich with artistic significance. It is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Eugene O'Neill, the American playwright whose artistic skill and tragic vision altered the face of Broadway and gave rise to the modern American theater. To celebrate the centennial of his birth, there is theater history in the making.

For the first time in 15 years, the three principal O'Neill interpreters - director Jos'e Quintero and veteran actors Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst - are reunited in two O'Neill revivals: ``Long Day's Journey into Night,'' the playwright's shatteringly autobiographical masterwork, and the idyllic ``Ah, Wilderness,'' O'Neill's only comedy. The first of these productions, ``Long Day's Journey,'' opens tonight at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The two plays, which are reverse mirror images of each other, will play in rotation at Yale (the university holds the rights to most of the O'Neill canon) until the end of May. In June, they will transfer to Broadway for the First New York International Festival of the Arts.

Here in the long-shadowed rehearsal hall echoing with murmurs and shouts of actors reciting their lines, against the bittersweet backdrop of O'Neill's family dramas, there is the unshakable sense that a family of artists has reassembled, possibly for the last time.

FOR Quintero, whose life work is simply synonymous with O'Neill's, the centennial marks a moment of personal triumph. Less than one year ago, Quintero underwent an operation to remove his vocal cords. It was a move that appeared to threaten not only the anniversary celebration, but the director's entire future career.

Now, some 10 months later, Quintero is just finishing a long afternoon of rehearsals. In the waning March light, he settles onto yet another set of ``Long Day's Journey'' and consents to a rare interview. Speaking slowly but passionately with the aid of an electronic voicebox, the patrician Panamanian director talked about the two revivals, and about his lifelong affinity for O'Neill.

``When I had my operation, I couldn't believe it. We had been taking about the centennial and my part in it for years,'' says Quintero, who still bears traces of a Latin American accent.

``And with this operation I thought I would never work again. To be able to take part in this celebration makes me feel...'' And here Quintero pauses, his eyes searching the air before him. `` made me feel that this was almost the reason I had been born.''

For Dewhurst, the productions mark her first return to O'Neill's work since her Tony Award-winning performance in the 1973 revival of ``The Moon for the Misbegotten.'' For Robards, who has never done an O'Neill play without Quintero's direction, it is something of a reprise; he starred in the original 1956 premi`ere of ``Long Day's Journey'' as well as the later Academy Award-winning film version. It is also Robards's first return to Broadway since his acclaimed portrayal of Hickey, the evangelical traveling salesman, in the 1986 revival of ``The Iceman Cometh.'' Indeed, it was Quintero's 1956 revival of ``The Iceman Cometh,'' just three years after O'Neill's death, that set the stage for the director's - and Robards's - careers, and served as a catalyst for a reevaluation of O'Neill's entire oeuvre.

O'Neill's widow, Carlotta Monterey O'Neill, was so moved by Quintero's artistry with that production that she granted him the rights to the then-never-produced ``Long Day's Journey into Night.'' (O'Neill had stipulated that the painfully autobiographical play not be mounted until nearly a quarter-century after his death.)

That production, staged later that same year, was immediately hailed as a landmark in the American theater. Brooks Atkinson wrote in the New York Times: ``With the production of `Long Day's Journey into Night' the American theater acquires size and stature.... It restores the drama to literature and the theater to art.'' (Indeed, O'Neill remains the only American playwright ever to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.)

``There are a lot of conscious reasons I could give you for the immediate bond I felt for O'Neill's work,'' says Quintero. ``But why do you fall in love? You understand the same things, you believe in the same things. It is a kind of mystery; the same things that shaped him shaped me.''

Indeed, the story of the tortured and torturing Tyrone family of ``Long Day's Journey'' closely patterns not only O'Neill's childhood - an itinerant actor/father, a morphine-addicted mother, an alcoholic older brother, a tuberculosis-afflicted youngest son - but there are echoes of it in Quintero's own upbringing. ``We were both raised in the Catholic Church. And I think it was the larger sense of ritual that was enormously important to both of us,'' says the director. ``Also the concept of purity and the longing for the Virgin Mother - not as a lofty mother, but as an earth mother; earthly because both of us, to some degree, had been denied a mother.''

No similarity, however, has struck as deep a bond as the two artists' physical afflictions. (O'Neill, who wrote more than 70 dramatic works during his life, had a degenerative nerve disorder that prevented him from writing during his last years. The two men also share a history of alcoholism.) ``When I found out about my operation, I felt they were going to take my one means of communication from me - and what is theater but communication?'' asks Quintero, his eyes suddenly flooding. There is a moment of silence among the shadows. ``I understood what he felt then; my identification with his last years became complete.''

But the director is quick toshake off any lingering melancholy. He speaks animatedly about the afternoon's rehearsal, praising his cast, which was plagued with a last-minute replacement. About Robards and Dewhurst, he says simply, ``We have worked together so often, we can almost communicate in sign language.'' (The one concession to Quintero's voice has been the addition of Arvin Brown as director of ``Ah, Wilderness.'' Artistic head of the nearby Long Wharf Theatre, Brown has directed several O'Neill productions, including the 1974 Broadway transfer of ``Ah, Wilderness.'')

Quintero says he makes no attempt in this production to compete with his original staging. ``It was so long ago, I don't really remember. And the actors, with the exception of Jason, are all different. Also, I'm older now, closer to the age of James Tyrone, the father. I'm more aware of the lonesomeness of each of the characters.

``I don't really know how I direct. I used to be very concerned with props. Now I try to take away all that is not essential. I like the form created by the dialogue more and more. O'Neill wasn't a poet of language. But he was a poet of the stage. The rhythms he creates with his lines, it is like nature, like the bark of a tree.''

It is the kind of artistic perspicacity seconded by the actors. ``Jos'e really sees the behavior of life in O'Neill's work,'' says Robards in his familiar gangster's growl, a far remove from Quintero's aristocratic demeanor. ``He uses the space to work that idea: the family together at first; then, by the end, the one person, the mother, is missing - she's over here,'' he says with a fillip of his hand. ``But it's all there with O'Neill, it's all behavior. It's how O'Neill fools you. You think it's all going to be cheap analysis, but it's not. See, he puts in the clues way back, and if you don't get those right, it all goes awry later. I'm always amazed at how he planned it all.''

Robards, who has been called the quintessential O'Neill actor (partly because of his own recovery from alcoholism), dismisses such praise with a blustery ``Oh, I never understood all that.'' He prefers to lace his conversation with backstage, all-in-the-family anecdotes of other O'Neill productions. According to Robards, the centennial idea was hatched over a lobster dinner at O`Neill's summer home in nearby New London, Conn.

``It was the 90th birthday and we were all up at the Monte Cristo cottage, the O'Neill summer house, marking the birthday over lobsters, and we started reading a scene from `Long Day's Journey' and somebody said, `Why don't we do this whole thing on the 100th?' ... So three years ago, Jos'e and I got the rights to it and `Ah, Wilderness.' It was one of the few O'Neill plays I hadn't done. None of us wanted to make it a big commercial thing, you know, just the joy of doing the two plays in rep.''

Although he played Jamie, the eldest son, in the original ``Long Day's Journey,'' Robards is tackling the father-figure roles this time around. ``I like Nat Miller,'' he says of the successful newspaper editor and genial father he plays in `Ah, Wilderness.'' ``I've never had a chance to play him, and he reminds me of Hillsdale, Mich., where my pop comes from.'' About playing Miller's alter ego, the angry and insecure actor James Tyrone, who has been compared to Robards's own actor-father, he says quietly, ``I understand the poverty of this guy better now. I understand more about theater, about living close to someone who is constantly leaving, about illness in a family. All those things are a part of it. They aren't the things I like to drag up, but they're all there.... It's the same family in both plays. It's just different sides of the same coin.''

``Certainly one of the big benefits of doing the two plays in rep is the chance to give `Ah, Wilderness' new credentials,'' adds Arvin Brown. ``It is a chance to make its relationship to the other plays much clearer, to see it in the canon and not just an aberration even though it is a comedy.''

A baldly idealized look at an all-American family during a turn-of-the-century Fourth of July celebration, ``Ah, Wilderness'' has always been considered one of O'Neill's lesser works, despite the author's insistence that it was the way he envisioned his family. ``All of what is in `Long Day's Journey' is in `Ah, Wilderness,''' explains Brown. ``The drinking, the hookers, a certain amount of the anger, the children coming of age. But in `Wilderness,' these issues are resolved with some sense of optimism.''

It is the kind of artistic cross-fertilization that has carried over into the rehearsal process. ``It is very tricky having two different directors sharing a cast, sharing rehearsal days,'' says Brown. ``But there is a very profound emotional connection between the two productions. Several of the actors that are in both productions take the darker emotions developed in `Long Day's Journey' and express them in the jokes in `Ah, Wilderness.' It's a way of defusing the feelings similar to the way a real family might.''

It is also a way of rediscovering O'Neill's lesser-known sensibilities. ``Instead of seeing him as a writer concerned only with man's raw wounds, we are reminded how capable of love he was,'' says Brown. ``The public has accepted certain clich'es about O'Neill, but one of his most remarkable qualities was his compassion.''

``O'Neill is totally American,'' adds Quintero, his eyes shining in the dying light. ``This is an American family; of course universal, but deeply American.''

Then, speaking almost as much for his own work as O'Neill's, he adds: ``This is a part of the history of America.''

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