The capitol-wide Eugene O’Neill Festival continues its journey with another classic presented at Arena Stage. This time be prepared to enter a day in the life of the Tyrone Family in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. This family puts a hint of ‘fun’ in dysfunction as they struggle to deal with their problems. A mother who has an addiction problem, a father who’s a drunk, the eldest son’s a street walker, and the youngest son is terribly ill – all these things build upon by secrets and lies bring this drama together for the audience’s enjoyment at the Kreeger Theatre. Directed by Robin Phillips, this production gives new meaning to the phrasing ‘slice of life’ drama.
The set, designed by Susan Benson is constructed in such a way as to allow the audience a simple glimpse into their life. It is created almost like a cross sectional – one room with the rest left to your imagination. The towering bookcases that flank either side of the stage creates negative space in the center for which the action can happen, and give an overall rustic feeling to the space; an old house in need of love. Ali uses tones of gray highlighted in further shades of gray to really bring out the underlying drab feelings of the family as they live their struggles through the duration of one summer afternoon. Costume Designer Susan Benson sets the time and location of the show for us, 1912 in seaside ‘hick-burg’ of Connecticut. Benson designs suits fitting of gentlemen going into town when James, Jamie, and Edmund have to go ‘up town.’ She also creates the picturesque painting of a woman bordering on the edge of her sanity in Mary with a sweeping lilac dress, pinched tight at the waist, completed with a high collar and lacy cuffs. These costume and set design choices help to keep the audience grounded in the time frame as the dialog, unlike in other O’Neill plays, does little to keep us aware of our location and time period.
The show, like all O’Neill plays, runs long – four acts done in two parts with an intermission. The pacing for this show is at times sluggish. There are long pauses between monologs and pieces of dialog that seemed unnatural to me – as if Director Phillips wants the audience to have time to think and absorb all that they had just seen and heard.
The staging is brilliant and they make use of all the various chairs and furnishings on the stage, as well as the back porch and front stoop. Phillips does not fall victim to having every conflict or explosion between characters happen right up in each other’s faces but rather takes a variety of approaches, having some conflicts shouted across the room at each other, or out the front door at one another.
The show bubbles with deep subtext always roiling quite close to the surface, and Phillips ensures that in every conflict, every moment of silence, every second played out on the stage these deeper meaning that O’Neill has imparted into the play shine through the actors’ portrayals.
These characters live and die by their dialog and interactions with the other characters; they are seldom left alone on the stage, although there are heavy monologues — especially for James and Edmund — where they have to keep the audience as well as their onstage partner completely engaged in their long speeches. This happens frequently for James (Peter Michael Goetz) particularly in the second act. Goetz commands a powerful presence on the stage as the master of the house and the head of the family. At first the good natured teasing relationship between him and Mary (Helen Carey) seems endearing and sweet but as the show progresses and it dissolves it almost sad because it is the last of their affections toward one another. Goetz has a rough nature to the arguments with his son, especially Jamie (Andy Bean) and makes these angry brawling moments convincible. Bean and Goetz go at each other’s throats, picking one another apart with sharp stinging barbs over the father’s frugality, Edmund’s illness, and what to do about Mother. It creates the epitome of the angry disappointed father and the rebellious disappointing son.
Despite all of their fighting they do seem to bond over one thing – Mary. Bean is particularly concerned and uses his quiet stand-offish stature to express this; of the four he uses his physicality to express his emotions the most rather than lying on the heavy text and transporting the audience into his emotional state with his words. Bean has a stunning scene late in Act II when he storms the stage roaring drunk, stumbling and blasting his voice at the top of his lungs, creating a more than convincing performance. His verbal outburst is electrifying as he attacks Edmund (Nathan Darrow) blaming him for their mother’s problems, confessing in agony that he has tried to corrupt him from the start. This quick blast of dramatic emotions is shocking as up until this point, save for a few verbal tussles with Goetz, Bean has managed to remain subdued and quiet.
Everyone presents their struggles throughout the show but we see it the most in Mary (Helen Carey). When she first enters the stage there is something just slightly off with her, the way she lists to one side as she moves, the way she stares into space when spoken to; the subtle hints that she perhaps isn’t all there very apparent. Carey undertakes a tremendous demand by starting at the edge of madness and diving deep in before the play is over. When she appears toward the end of the show, rambling into her madness she looks haunted, floating down the stairs like a ghost. Her constant divide between the desperate need to be alone and the terrifying fear of being lonely is captivating; she switches back and forth between the two within seconds and creates a truly convincing crazy character. Her conflicts with the other characters drive the frustration of this show. Edmund (Darrow) tries to confess to her that he is sick, that he is to blame, but she flips back and forth between not knowing what he’s talking about and shouting at the top of her lungs. This intense series of emotions flying from Carey makes her soul cry out to the audience for compassion.
An overall overwhelming assault of emotions from all parties, this O’Neill classic will have you closely examining the nature of your own family, carefully dissecting everyone’s lies and secrets, and trying to cope and accept all of the drama and flaws that come along with it.
Helen Carey’s haunting and harrowing performance is a Must See – well worth making the journey to Arena Stage.
Running Time: Three hours, plus one intermission.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays through May 6, 2012 in the Kreeger Theatre, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater -1101 6th Street SW, in Washington DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 554-2461 or purchase them online.