Strange Interlude (Lyttelton)/The Amen Corner (Olivier) – National Theatre – Carole Woddis.

The roads not taken.  Eugene O’Neill’s 1928 Pulitzer prize winner, Strange Interlude, is full of roads not taken, sex not had, marriages not made until finally two lost souls find safe haven in each other’s arms, devoid of desire but at last, at peace.

O’Neill’s plays infuriate.  Soaring, over-written – and sometimes even badly written – they also have such poetry and haunting humanity about them the heart caves in.

Strange Interlude is unusual in that it also shows O’Neill in self-mocking mood.

About the search for happiness, the drive to possess another human being, it’s also streaked with humour.  O’Neill, always a highly personal playwright, in a device that must have seemed highly experimental at the time, has characters turning to audiences in a constant stream of self-deprecatory asides expressing interior thoughts – a trick that largely works in humanising his characters and moderating our judgements on them, if at times you just want to shout at them to stop.

Simon Godwin’s production for the National makes it a handsome revival, not least in Soutra Gilmour’s series of stunning revolving sets – here a hermetically dark study, there an airy, New England beach-house conservatory, then again a smart New York apartment with a vaulting staircase.

Inside, Godwin’s cast of Charles Edward, Anne-Marie Duff, Darren Pettie (courtesy of American Equity) and Jason Watkins play out a heated, agonised ménage a quatre.

Edwards is simply impeccable as the stiff, emotionally up-tight novelist friend, Charlie Marsden to Duff’s grieving Nina who seeks solace from losing one fiancée in war to marrying the Mickey-Rooney/Jimmy Handley lookalike Sam Evans (some wig!) whose family suddenly seem cursed with – whisper it – insanity.

Cue Pettie as `Ned’, the local doctor mouthing pap psychology, that Nina needs a child to restore her to sanity (yes, the play can seem idiotically dated on occasion) and when Nina falls pregnant and then aborts it to save unborn child from suffering the same fate of insanity, opts for pregnancy outside the family ie with Ned but continues married to Sam, to stick by him – well, O’Neill’s idea about female sacrifice can become just plain tiresome.

And yet, and yet.  This revival wins you over, or won this viewer over, by its sheer stylishness, poetic flights and a lifetime’s arc of its characters.

Over in the National’s Olivier, another American, James Baldwin, is also receiving a cracking revival.  Baldwin, a hugely influential figure in American literary and political circles penned his début play in 1954 although it didn’t see the light of day on Broadway until ten years later.

Here, it had a memorable première at the Tricycle Theatre in north London, in 1987 presented by Carib Theatre.  The story of another `fallen’ woman – well, isn’t that the stuff of drama – Baldwin, the son of a Harlem minister, explores in equally autobiographical fashion to O’Neill, issues of belief and hypocrisy through a female Harlem pastor, Sister Margaret.  Her faith is subjected to the severest test by family and her god-fearing but increasingly hostile `loyal’ congregation.

Rufus Norris’ production is inevitably larger and better resourced than Carib’s and boasts not only a set that combines arches and alcoves but a raised stage graced by a throng of wonderful gospel singers from the London Community Gospel Choir.

Norris, usually a sure touch when it comes to musical backgrounds – his recent production of Table in the NT’s Shed was a triumph of sensitive attuning of musical cadences to script – gives a little too much weight to the choral episodes, slightly overwhelming but certainly revitalising a script some consider sprawling.

Baldwin’s passionate naturalism, however, was a forerunner to Lorraine Hansberry’s great family drama, A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson’s later cycle of plays charting African-American life through the 20th century.

Personally, Carib’s production, for this viewer, found a greater authenticity in its more run-down storefront church setting, truer perhaps to the idea of bible-thumping church-going, in this context, being a salve for extreme poverty and hardship.

Carmen Munroe’s Sister Margaret, too, was an unforgettably imposing figure until broken by events.  Marianne Jean-Baptiste, star of Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, returning to the UK after a long US residence, is altogether softer if no less convincing.  Lucian Msamati and Eric Kofi Abrefa as her erring musician husband and son respectively (the latter a sure self-portrait) and Sharon D Clarke indomitable as her supportive blood sister lead a strong cast in a production one can only welcome for the powerful experience Baldwin’s play will afford for a whole new generation.

Strange Interlude is at the National Theatre to Sept 1; The Amen Corner to Aug 14; see www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.

Carole Woddis © 2013.