Ghost lights, glowing from stages throughout the area have stopped being quite so lonely as rehearsing actors storm local stages with the onslaught of theater that will begin late in August.

Busiest, at least in terms of scope, are Tao House and the Village Theatre in Danville, where the 15th Annual Eugene O'Neill Festival will begin a series of activities, including the production of two plays, Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and O'Neill's Danville-created "The Iceman Cometh," through late August and almost all of September.

So, it's really a good time to visit Tao House in the hills above Danville, where O'Neill wrote his final, and, many say, most important plays of his Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning career.

Aside from the fact the site is breathtakingly beautiful, a visit to Tao House is a rare chance to see the place where O'Neill played out his theatrical genius, creating such plays as "Iceman," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

It's a room hidden away through several doors and a large wooden desk where O'Neill sat, turning out magnificent dialogue in tiny handwriting. It was the only way, with his trembling hands; he could make his thoughts legible enough to share with the world. Several examples of this are found at the house, along with furniture used by the writer and his wife, Carlotta.


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A few steps across the yard is Tao House's Old Barn, where "Iceman" will be staged Sept. 19-28 with a total of seven performances. Tickets cost $35. Eric Fraisher Hayes, a member of the O'Neill Foundation's board and artistic director of Danville's Role Players Ensemble, will direct the show, which is having its first Bay Area production since 1975.

"Iceman" is the story of dead-end drinkers in a dead-end saloon, swapping stories and trying to cage free drinks from the owner of the bar, as they wallow in the boozy reverie that is their only escape.

They are waiting for Hickey, a salesman who visits the bar twice a year and launches a party for the regulars, who are awaiting his arrival by telling each other stories of a bright future. But when Hickey arrives, he is a new man, sober and ready to take on the world with a new verve. He also confesses a secret that changes the entire tenor of the place.

Festival veteran and retired theater professor George Maguire directs Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which joins "Iceman" in reflecting the festival's theme, "The Art of Escape," essentially dealing with how the characters deal with the situations they encounter through some sort of escape. It plays Sept. 5-28 at Danville's Village Theatre, 233 Front St. Tickets cost $28.

"O'Neill's impact on Tennessee Williams is very evident," said Hayes. "He covers some of the same themes that O'Neill led with in many of his later works -- greed, social mores and the unwillingness to let go of the 'pipe dreams' held by the play's characters."

Other festival events include the free "Art of the Escape" show Aug. 28-Sept. 28 at the Village Theatre Art Gallery. The exhibits, from art and sculpture to photography, sculpture and poetry, "will be explorations of the great human need to imagine alternate realities."

An artists' reception is scheduled at the gallery 5 p.m. Sept. 29.

Other events include:

"The Secrets of O'Neill in Danville:" A free hourlong walking tour with stories about Danville and the O'Neills when they lived at Tao House from 1937-44. Docents from the Museum of San Ramon lead the tours scheduled for 10 a.m. Sept, 6 and 1 p.m. Sept. 27.

"Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and the Art of the Escape:" A panel discussion on the festival's featured playwrights with a focus on the role of "escape" in their works and lives, hosted by the Museum of the San Ramon Valley -- 2 p.m. Sept. 13. Admission is $12.

"Truth, Lies and Illusions:" An afternoon of short scenes presented by theater companies from around the Bay Area exploring stories that are told in an effort to cope with one's circumstances. The event is set for Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. in the Old Barn at Tao House. Admission is $25.

Information and tickets to the events are available at http://www.eugeneoneill.org/tickets15th.php, or www.roleplayersensemble.com. Information is also at Tao House, 925-820-1818.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.