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Paulanne Simmons

"Miles to Babylon" Is a Moving, Sometimes Amusing, Journey

Karen Gibson and Rachel Schwartz in "Miles to Babylon"

"Miles to Babylon"
Directed by Tom Thornton
American Theatre of Actors
514 West 54th St. at 8th Ave. (4th floor)
Opened Oct. 12, 2006
Tues. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.
$18, $15 seniors/students (212) 868-4444 or smartTix.com
Closes Oct. 29, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Oct. 13, 2006

When Mrs. O'Neill returns to Sacred Cross School as a desperate, middle-aged woman, she finds the haven she sought has fallen on hard times and Mother Elizabeth, whom she had hoped would give her the spiritual strength to help her kick her morphine addiction, is dead. At first she wants to leave, but circumstance and the new Reverend Mother convince her to stay and fight for her soul.

"Miles to Babylon" is Ann Harson's imagined account of what happened to Ella O'Neill, mother of playwright Eugene O'Neill, at the convent where, in fact, she did rid herself of her habit. That was twenty-five years after she became addicted to morphine, following the birth of her famous son, and eight years before her death.

Angela Della Ventura and James Nugent

Directed with tenderness and humor by Tom Thornton, the play is no mere historical fiction. It touches on such universal topics as feminism, faith and sin. During her moving performance as Ella, Karen Gibson describes her life with James O'Neill, "like the sleeve of his coat, forever dangling on his arm." She laments as many mothers have, "I see [my children] when all they have is lint in their pocket." She asks the disquieting question, "Did Jesus think about his mother when he died for greater glory?"

Most insightfully, Harson plays with the word habit, suggesting that Mrs. O'Neill has taken on one kind of habit to protect herself from the world, while the nuns take on another.

Gibson's portrayal of the sophisticated and suffering Mrs. O'Neill certainly dominates the production. But Rachel Schwartz also delivers an excellent performance as the effervescent novice, Catherine, whose enthusiastic, often inappropriate ramblings are both funny and wise. And James Nugent is totally convincing as Archie, the retarded handyman, who is given the task of making sure Mrs. O'Neill doesn't get into the closet where her stash is hidden.

Nina Camp, as Amelia, the more timid novice, and Angela Della Ventura, as Mother Dolores, Ella's formal rival at school and the nun who replaced Mother Elizabeth, also make substantial contributions.

The stage at American Theatre Actors Sargent Theatre is certainly not one directors dream of. But Thornton, with the help of set designer Michael Anania, who created a bleak room onstage and left the rest to the imagination, makes a virtue of necessity, using a minimum of scenery for maximum effect.

Karen Gibson

Anyone familiar with Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," a play O'Neill said he wrote with "deep pity and understanding and forgiveness," has a fairly good idea of what his mother's addiction mean to the playwright. It's both interesting and instructive to imagine the story from his mother's point of view. Harson has drawn from her knowledge of addicts and the O'Neills to write a totally plausible scenario and a gripping drama.

This production could use a bit more work. The acting was somewhat uneven, running the gamut from brilliant to not quite there yet. But then, according to Harson, it seems Mrs. O'Neill was somewhat rough around the edges too.

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