In 2004, I assistant directed Peg O'Keef as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's epic Long Day's Journey Into Night at the much-missed Theatre Downtown. Last weekend, she returned to the role in Mad Cow Theatre's production under director Mark Edward Smith. I interviewed O'Keef on opening night about her own long journey in the intervening 12 years, and the role theater has played in her life.
"I've always been really kind of shy," the Leesburg native confesses, until she joined a community theater at age 11. "I found that in that environment, because it called upon people to be collaborative in a shared goal and it was kind of focused on getting something done, that I felt more socially comfortable."
O'Keef arrived at Rollins College in 1977 as a theater major, and was inspired by the wide-ranging liberal arts curriculum. "The best acting course I ever took was a winter term in genetics. It taught me about the biological role of our humanity, the things that are both inescapable but also become the product of our personal conflict. When you put that in the framework of the pressures of society, and existential distress, it becomes a real cauldron for humanity."
Surprisingly, the future star didn't spend much time onstage at Rollins. "Mostly I was a tech kid. I built a lot of sets. I did a little directing. I couldn't get cast in shows there unless it required wearing a corset. Back then I had that figure that was terrific for a 16th- or 17th-century corset. I always carried a costume well but I wasn't much of an actor."
Following graduate school in "dreary" Ohio, O'Keef returned to Orlando in 1984 and helped Miriam P. Saunders and T. Neil Fritz found Tropical Theater, first in a small studio and later in a Church Street basement steps from Mad Cow's current site. "The production experience every night began with rolling a large industrial door closed, essentially putting the audience in a fire trap. It was thrilling!" says O'Keef about those early days. "This was the nascent days of the artistic underground in Orlando ... literally underground in our case, because we were in a basement."
After Tropical washed out, O'Keef and company established Theatre Downtown at the corner of Princeton and Orange. When we rehearsed our production of LDJIN by candlelight after the 2004 hurricanes, it reminded her of the theater's first show. "During American Buffalo we were having difficulty getting all of our licenses, so the power was occasionally on, occasionally off, depending on whoever had inspected the building. Rehearsing by candlelight is romantic in many theaters; in Theatre Downtown it was a necessity."
O'Keef still mourns the space, which has been sitting vacant for over a year. "To go to Theatre Downtown was to me like going to church," she says. "The loss of it is incalculable to me. There were sometimes three generations of people working together in that theater. Where else do you see that in Orlando?"
Stepping back into the slippers of O'Neill's muddled matriarch has had some twists, starting with Mad Cow's unconventional choice to stage the lengthy script entirely uncut. "O'Neill has a really good sense, like Beckett, of how language fits in time. It's symphonic," she says in praise of the unedited version. But those extra words have required effort to memorize. "When I relearned Mary Tyrone, it was like pulling out old family photos and not seeing the actual images but seeing the ghosts of them. As I'm going through these words, I'm feeling them like rise up, not just from the page, but some old memory."
However, O'Keef says the payoff comes in the pacing. "When you get to Act Four of this piece and it seems to be slowing down but it's not slowing down, it becomes suspended in the anti-gravitational sense. You have all of this chaos and existential dread in the first three hours, as well as joy and humor. Then you get to Act Four and it just glistens and rises off the stage. It's a really interesting effect that I was not as aware of in the Theatre Downtown production."
Moreover, O'Keef herself is now closer in age to Mary Tyrone, yielding new insights. "How should I put this delicately? I'm menopausal as hell," she shares. "I suspect that Mary Tyrone was also experiencing the same things. I've got a whole new worldview now. I've got a biochemical experience to bring to this that I didn't have before, and it is mysterious and also commonplace."
Finally, this production reunites O'Keef with Orlando expat Kristian Truelsen, with whom she starred in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance at Mad Cow's old home before Truelsen's move to Canada. "He has the gravitas to bring to James Tyrone," O'Keef says of her onstage spouse, "but he also is such a well-informed actor. He reads and studies, contributes to the collaboration in a way that is so not the James Tyrone matinee idol, and yet he can step into those shoes."
Admitting some anxiety that audiences will be turned away by the play's weighty reputation ("Long Day's Journey Into Night is not a title that says 'Buy a ticket for a good time,'" she jokes), O'Keef wants people to know that "what they're going to take away from this is worth the investment of their time and money and energy." The same could be said about her entire life in the arts. "The theater is the place where I was born and bred ... it has become my chapel, my classroom, my lens through which I can view the world," O'Keef says. "More than anything, it's a place to sustain my humility by going to dangerous places, holding hands and jumping off cliffs into dark spaces, just knowing that you're going to be OK."