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|A CurtainUp Review
Long Day's Journey Into the Night reviewed by Elyse Sommer
The past couple of years have brought a number of opportunities to revisit or, as the case may be, become acquainted with the work of Eugene O'Neill, the man generally credited with being America's foremost playwright. In July and November of last year, National Asian American Theatre Company (NATCO), did two of his best known family plays Ah, Wilderness and Long Day's Journey Into Night in an ideal repertory format -- first came the light-hearted invented family of O'Neill' imagination, the American-and-good-as-apple-pie Millers of Ah, Wilderness and next the Tyrones of Long Day's Journey Into Night, (also living in New London, Connecticut, but as summer transients, unlike the more firmly rooted Millers), who were forged from the playwright's obsessive memories of the family he knew best, his own. Les Gutman who reviewed both of these back-to-back productions, greatly praised the continuity thus established between these two plays, both with the same director and the same actor cast in the autobiographical role. (See links to other reviews below).
Currently, we have another opportunity to see the link between these worlds apart yet closely connected plays, with revivals of Ah, Wilderness and A Long Day's Journey Into Night opening within a week of each other. Since each involves a different company, director and narrating character, we don't have quite the sense of repertory unity but this is offset by the fact that both plays can be seen within days or weeks of each other. Were O'Neill alive, he would undoubtedly be as pleased to find them off rather than on Broadway since he himself avoided Broadway during the mature years of his career.
Since Allan Wallach is reviewing Ah, Wilderness, I went to see Long Day's Journey first and will be seeing these bookend productions in reverse order, moving from darkness to light, unlike O'Neill who used the sunny Ah, Wilderness as the first step towards unburdening his own darker vision of family interaction. In the meantime, I can tell you that the Irish Rep production is well worth seeing.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, the play takes place in one day during which a double crisis rekindles smouldering grudges and recollections of the Tyrone family's troubled family history. Crisis one centers on Mary Tyrone, (Frances Sternhagen ) the convent-bred mother who is teetering on the brink of once again losing her long battle with morphine addiction; an addiction which she and her alcoholic older son ( Paul Carlin) blame on the chronic miserliness of the head of the household, a hack actor (Brian Murray). Crisis two, which has exacerbated crisis one, concerns youngest son Edmund's ( Paul McGrane) tuberculosis which can no longer be hidden behind the euphemistic "bad summer cold." (O'Neill, who himself suffered a bout of tuberculosis, named his alter ego after a brother who died as a child). The setting is the living room of the Tyrone's summer home, the time 1912 . It takes from 8:30 to midnight to reveal that underneath the needling and bickering these characters love each other but that, tragically, the established habits of evasion and self-destructiveness have gotten the upper hand.
Without sacrificing any of its "old sorrows written in tears and blood" impact, director Charlotte Moore has trimmed, her production to a judicious 3 hours, with an efficiently attractive set that works well for the small theater's somewhat awkward semi-thrust stage. As it turns out, her choice of actors is equally fortuitous. While I admire Brian Murray and Frances Sternhagen, I probably wouldn't have thought of them first as the heads of this dysfunctional household, yet both do justice to their difficult parts.
Murray's James Tyrone is full of actorly self-absorption and false bonhomie but he's also enormously sympathetic, more regretful than mean spirited. He rues forfeiting his chance to become a great Shakespearian actor for the security of touring with a cheap melodrama (O'Neill's father played The Count of Monte Cristo more than 6000 times). He rues not being able to "unlearn" the miserliness borne of an impoverished childhood in time to save his wife from addiction. His Act 2 scene with Edmund, in which moments of quiet camaraderie over a game of cards are punctuated with confrontation and recollection is breathtakingly funny and sad. Being the fine actor he is, the nuggets from Tyrone's beloved Shakespeare are tossed off with flair, and it's a pleasure to watch his body language -- the unspoken sadness as he faces the picture of himself dressed in his Monte Cristo outfit, the arms throw out and dropped in helpless despair as he realizes Mary is on her way back to becoming "nothing but a ghost haunting the past."
And as that "ghost" Frances Sternhagen is a haunting, hovering presence. When the first effects of the morphine she has slyly acquired with the help of the unwitting maid (Rosemary Fine) make her drone on with unbearable recrimination after recrimination, you want to lash out at her even as you pity her. Since she wears a white, bride-like dress throughout, her holding her wedding dress in her arms at the end is almost more powerful than as if she were wearing it. That dress is, after all, the past which she embraces as lovingly as a mother would a baby.
Paul McGrane as the youngest son Edmond while a rather robust-looking tubercular nevertheless gives a richly nuanced reading of the emotionally and physically embattled seagoing poet-writer (O'Neill's alter ego). He is a dreamer who wishes he'd been born a sea gull. He is also angry and afraid, and guilty and confused about the fact that it was after his birth that his mother became a drug addict.
Paul Carlin (who happens to be Frances Sternhagen's real life son), brings a Jack Nicholson sort of irony and nonchalance to the part of the alcoholic older son. His best moment comes in the scene where he drops his veneer and warns Edmund his brother to beware of the part of him that's dead and wants him to die.
Touches of humor throughout make the tragedy enjoyable as well as moving. My favorite line is Tyrone Senior's description of one of his tenants as "such a scalawag that he could hide behind a corkscrew." But the only all-comic character is that of the maid played with a grand Irish brogue by the eponymously named Rosemary Fine. No trouble understanding her, mind you, since as her boss (James Sr.) declares, quot;she ought to be a train announcer."
Don't let my introduction about this flurry of O'Neill revivals lull you into thinking that if you miss this Long Day' Journey Into Night there'll always be another. These revivals are still rare, not to be missed opportunities, and this production is no exception
LINKS TO OTHER EUGENE O'NEILL PLAYS REVIEWED
Long Day's Journey Into Night (NATCO)
Ah, Wilderness (NATCO)
Ah, Wilderness (Lincoln Center)
Desire Under the Elms
Beyond the Horizon