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Into the Mist: Tour of O'Neill cottage conjures ghosts of the past

Published 08/17/2011 12:00 AM

It was a muggy, gray day as we walked up the long path to the boyhood summer home of Eugene O'Neill on Pequot Avenue in New London. I could feel someone's eyes on us. Probably it was only the tour guide, Trevor, who looked forlorn sitting there on the porch of the Monte Cristo Cottage as the house opened for a slow Sunday afternoon of tours. But who's to say it wasn't the ghost of the playwright's mother, Mary Ella O'Neill – Mary Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey into Night" – keeping vigil for her drunken husband and sons to come staggering home from a New London barroom? Or maybe it was one of those sons looking down at us – Eugene himself, watching the fog creep up the Thames River, his hand gripping a quill pen, his mind lost in thought.

It was here, from 1900 to 1920, that the O'Neills spent their summers while the playwright's father, James, was on break from touring in his perennial role in "The Count of Monte Cristo." New London was the only real home the family had, but their stay was not always happy. If the Tyrones in "Long Day's Journey" are any indication, and the play seems largely autobiographical, the O'Neill family was riven with anger and despair. James and his oldest son, Jamie, drank; Eugene was ill with tuberculosis; and Mary Ella O'Neill was a junkie whose addiction to morphine kept her in and out of sanitariums. Although it is kept up, the property still bears a shabby look. The hedges that James Tyrone so famously tends in "Long Day's Journey" are wild and untrimmed, and one can picture Mary Tyrone watching from the window, mortified, as her husband and son behave like common gardeners. "There go the Chatfields in their new Mercedes," she says. "It's a beautiful car, isn't it? Not like our secondhand Packard. Poor Jamie! He bent almost under the hedge so they wouldn't notice him. They bowed to your father and he bowed back as if he were taking a curtain call, in that filthy old suit I've tried to make him throw away."

Mrs. O'Neill thought her famously skinflint husband had cut corners in renovating their summer house, and this complaint channeled her general disappointment in life. As Mary Tyrone declared, the house "was wrong from the start," and our tour guide pointed out why. The stair banister is a piece of cheap carpentry – what we today would call "prefab" – and the spindles, instead of being individually attached to the floor, float above the stairs. The staircase itself blocks a window. The ceilings were raised to nearly 12 feet on the first floor, giving the lower rooms a Victorian grandeur, but the upper floor was never modified, so the bedrooms have a cramped, claustrophobic feel, like what you might find in an old farmhouse.

But look closely and you will see what Mary Ella O'Neill couldn't. The rose-tinted glass of the light fixtures in the front parlor, and the pink stone of the fireplace, lend a Victorian glow. The reproduction wallpaper may be in the spirit of the cheap stock James O'Neill bought, but it, too, has a chintzy charm. And the home's many windows bring in the light of the river in all its moods.

Our tour started with a 15-minute video heavy on fog and floating buoys, and then Trevor gave his own history of the family by pointing out some of the extensive memorabilia on the walls. We could have done without all the photos and playbills; we came to see the house, and several rooms have been taken over by this sort of thing, marring its authentic feel.

More interesting was the so-called "Long Day's Journey into Night" room, which has been furnished faithfully from the play's stage directions, right down to the one light bulb burning in the chandelier. ("Ablaze with electricity! One bulb!" Edmund shouts sarcastically in Act Four.) In the bookcases are plays by Moliere, the Life of Washington, "Annals of the New York Stage." On a stand are stone growlers – jugs that James O'Neill would refill with whiskey at the local bars. Like a faceless ghost, a mannequin holds the white dress that Colleen Dewhurst wore as Mary Tyrone in the 1988 Broadway production.

Ghosts were on our mind as we made our way up the stairs to the turret bedroom, which belonged to Jamie O'Neill. As we walked into the narrow room with its single bed, we realized the weather had turned. It was raining – pouring, in fact – and the fog Eugene O'Neill made famous was rolling up the Thames.

You could almost hear Mary Tyrone: "It wasn't the fog I minded … It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be."

We moved on to Eugene's bedroom. Our tour happened to include a director working at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford who not only had extensive knowledge of O'Neill but had lived in Monte Cristo Cottage as a writer-in-residence, sleeping in this very room and using the writer's desk. "It's not haunted," he said hastily of the house, although he admitted making lots of noise whenever he walked in, just in case.

You can make up your own mind. The Monte Cristo Cottage is open through Labor Day. But bring your umbrella, just in case.

The house, at 325 Pequot Ave., New London, is open Thursday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 3 p.m. Admission is $7 ($5 for students or senior citizens). Members of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center are admitted free.

For more information, visit www.theoneill.org.