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No Long Day's Journey to O'Neill's Tao House

July 10, 1988|MORTON CATHRO | Cathro is a free-lance writer living in Moraga, Calif.

DANVILLE, Calif. — Visitors to the Bay Area who lean toward the literary need not travel a long day's journey into night to find the house of playwright Eugene O'Neill, a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner and America's only dramatist to receive the Nobel Prize for literature.

Isolated on 13 acres amid the rolling slopes of Las Trampas Ridge, in this affluent Contra Costa County suburb, is Tao House. "My last and final harbor," the writer said. And he named it for the Chinese religion he practiced, Taoism.

By rental car or public transportation, Tao House, which was acquired by the National Park Service in 1980, is an hour's ride from San Francisco or San Jose.

Three Locked Doors

In his study behind a barrier of three closed (and often locked) doors O'Neill wrote "The Iceman Cometh," "Moon for the Misbegotten" and the autobiographical "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

The study of the two-story house, which the dramatist designed and in which he lived in from 1936 to 1944, looks out upon a sweeping view of Central California's tallest peak, 3,849-foot Mt. Diablo.

The most telling furnishings are two Chinese Foo dogs carved of teak. Symbols of protection, they still stand guard at the foot of the staircase leading to the study.

The final leg of the ride to Tao House must be made by National Park Service van. The home, seemingly cloaked in an air of mystery, is a National Historic Site with restricted visiting privileges.

Free Ride, Tour

The van ride and two-hour tour of the house and grounds are free, but reservations are required. Call (415) 838-0249.

The van departs Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., from Danville's Clock Tower parking lot on Hartz Avenue.

O'Neill donated his manuscripts and books to Yale University, but such items as a water pitcher and cup, a ship's model, even a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes in their original green wrapping--found in one of the two fireplaces--are on display.

And of course the blue suede-covered swivel chair in which he sat at his desk.

Landscaping has begun to restore the grounds to its original O'Neill look--shrubs, including great mounds of his favorite, star jasmine, and brick walkways. Some of the fruit and nut trees remain and oaks still abound.

The house, as O'Neill was, is somewhat of an enigma.

Built of concrete blocks resemling adobe bricks made to O'Neill's specifications, it first gives the impression of a Spanish hacienda. The black-glazed, terra-cotta roof, however, offers an Oriental motif.

From San Francisco take the Bay Bridge to Oakland and California 24, then south on Interstate 680 at Walnut Creek.

More Than Tao House

By Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), it's the Concord line as far as Walnut Creek station, then transfer to County Connection bus No. 121, which runs to Danville every half hour except Sundays and holidays. From San Jose it's about a 40-minute on I-680.

There's much more to see than Tao House this centennial year of O'Neill's birth, namely a long playbill of works not only in the Bay Area but all over the United States and abroad.

In the East Bay, Lafayette Dramateurs will open "Anna Christie," the 1922 Pulitzer winner, on Sept. 30, and will stage a benefit performance Oct. 16, the anniversary of O'Neill's birth in New York City in 1888.

Over Las Trampas Ridge in the town of Moraga, St. Mary's College has been holding seminars and symposiums, while the Walnut Creek Civic Arts Theater has had free readings at libraries and schools.

The American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco has "Marco Millions" on its fall schedule. Dates should be announced in about two weeks.

For details of all Bay Area productions, as well as the Oregon Shakespearean Festival's summer-long staging of "The Iceman Cometh," write to Tao House, Box 402, Danville, Calif. 94526.

Nationally, perhaps the biggest revival is at Yale Repertory Theater, where Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst are starring in "Ah, Wilderness!" (his only comedy) and "Long Day's Journey."

Overseas, symposiums and tributes are being given in such countries as China, Japan, India, Belgium and Sweden.

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