Family is everything according to Eugene O’Neill. The relationships you form as a child will haunt and guide all of your future life. Rebellion is a basic of the dynamic, and as much as O’Neill suffered in his life in a theatrical household, it allowed him to break away from the traditions of claptrap melodrama that made his relations rich, famous, and miserable. How fortunate we are that O’Neill used these experiences to find the keys to modern drama. Every serious, probing playwright working today is in his debt.
Long Day’s Journey into Night takes us into the soul of the unique world O’Neill came from. His father, James O’Neill, was a great stage actor of the late 1890s who possessed a talent and bearing that made him a popular idol of the era. According to the play and in real life, he ignored his natural talent for Shakespeare and toured in a popular vehicle that destroyed his greatness but made him a mountain of money. As the play opens in the summer of 1912, James (here called James Tyrone) has become a controlling miser whose apprehensions dominate the entire family universe. Eugene felt that his portrait was so revealingly honest that he forbade publication and performance of the play. It was writing as exorcism, or what we would call today “theater as therapy.”
The modern term, one that O’Neill never heard, is “dysfunctional family.” The term means a system where each member is so overwhelmend with his own problems or addictions that assisting anyone else is impossible. The members can only hurt not help. As such, Long Day’s Journey remains as vital in today’s world as the era it depicts.
Quintessence Theatre director/designer Alexander Burns has created a setting that closely resembles the actual O’Neill house, Monte Cristo Cottage, now a museum in New London, Connecticut. Since the summer was a slow season for touring actors, the O’Neill family returned to this same seaside location every year. We O’Neill idolaters, who have seen many so many different productions, have made the pilgrimage. The first thing we notice is how small the actual room is, compared with the settings on Broadway or the National Theatre. This tiny space offers no escape. Clapboard carpentry and no-frills design dominate this production. Only the lack of extensive set dressing keeps the room from feeling truly lived in. Lighting Designer Ellen Moore effectively takes us on the journey from bright morning to the depths of midnight, as Costumer Jane Casanave helps us understand the fashions and conventions of the era.
Young Eugene, here called Edmund Tyrone, has grown up in the melodramatic theater of the late 19th Century. His young life was “the road,” cheap hotels or boarding schools. To escape his family he shipped out as a seaman, but how now finds himself back in New London with an illness that may turn out to be the dreaded consumption. As Edmund, James Davis tends to lapse into self-pity in the production’s first half (which travels from morning to mid-day) but comes into his own late at night as he recites the new poetry that must supplant Shakespeare in modern life and theater. His performance effectively details the young artist/poet struggling to find his own path is a new world.
Eugene’s beloved older brother, Jamie, was a handsome rake whose natural charm could easily have led to a successful life in the theater, had he not allowed himself to sink into uncontrollable alcoholism. As the play begins, he launches some of the meanest attacks on his parents especially despising that James is always acting, or seducing people with his theatrical voice. He hates that the older actor’s insecurities have led him to invest his fortune in “bum” real estate schemes that prevent him from perceiving that his family is slipping into illness and addiction. Josh Carpenter, one of my favorite of the Quintessence regulars, monotonously shouts his way through the first half, and it is only in his final scene that the self-loathing and painful confusion of alcohol abuse is allowed to emerge.
E. Ashley Izard offers a Mary Tyrone who has stepped right out of the 19th Century. Her careful attendance to her hair, clothing and bearing completely convince as the young convent girl pushed into the world of theater by an adolescent crush on her matinee idol husband. Now, years later, she realizes that she has always been ashamed of the lower class world she has entered and uses drugs to gain the thing she needs most: escape. This many layered performance turns from simple petulance, to wild eyed dreaming in an instant. She is supremely memorable.
Cassandra Nary, as Cathleen, the greenhorn maid with a drinking problem, contributes a welcome comic cameo.
Paul Hebron, as James Sr., is at his best when he describes his escape from poverty. He details in relishing specifics the life of the truly poor of the 1870s. He worked in a freezing factory, struggled to lose his Irish accent and eventually escaped to the acting profession, where he once played successfully with the great Edwin Booth. Hebron cannot make the old skinflint likable, but he does make him comprehensible. In the great alcoholic tradition, he consumes an enormous amount, but continually reminds everyone that he has never missed a performance. But this James is more Willy Loman than James Tyrone. He comes across as a contemporary person who is not quite convincing as the great hero that now cannot escape the melodramatic stage he has built of his life, and that Eugene O’Neill sought to remake. Hebron is a fine actor, but one feels that this James could never have created a sensation as Othello.
Director Burns portrays the Tyrones as clamorous, high decibel, and angry. This family gets the screaming hatred out in the first hour, and does not need the journey into night that the author set them upon. Had O’Neill possessed this family he would not have needed the four-hour running time that must slowly break down hidden barriers, subterfuges and prevarications that must finally dissolve into honesty and truth. Hopefully, as the run continues, the family can replace the shouting with more subtle choices to give Long Day’s Journey into Night the structure and development it demands.
Running Time: Three hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Long Day’s Journey into Night plays through Sunday, October 22, 2017 at Quintessence Theatre Group, performing at the Sedgwick Theater – 7137 Germantown Avenue (Mount Airy) in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 987-4450, or purchase them online.