Eugene O’Neill, the only American playwright to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (1936), a man who struggled with alcoholism but who had the courage to address problematic, taboo subjects, shocked his contemporaries with his Long Day’s Journey into Night.
Given the financially troubled times in the U.S. today and the often short attention span of a society that seems to live on instant coffee and instant news and instant politics via tweets from the White House in the middle of the night, few theaters present psychologically and intellectually demanding plays that last 3 ½ hours. Director Alexander Burns has consistently shown the courage to present important classics, no matter how long, complex, or expensive a production might be. He has built an ensemble that shines, including Cassandra Nary and E. Ashley Izard, the much–talked–about Barrymore winner who plays the addicted Mrs. Tyrone.
In this interview, the three actors who play the three troubled men of the Tyrone family speak openly about some challenging topics.
Henrik Eger: “I never wanted to be an actor,” Eugene O’Neill said through Jamie, the alcoholic son of the Tyrone family. When first did you realize that you wanted to become an actor? And what did you do to overcome any possible doubts?
Josh Carpenter (Jamie, oldest son of the Tyrone family): I took a drama class when I was in seventh grade and immediately loved it. As I went through school, theatre became my main interest, and my parents were very encouraging, so I went on to study theatre at Northwestern University. After I graduated, however, I didn’t see how it would be possible for me to survive financially working as an actor, so I pursued a different career that had always held a lot of interest for me: being a teacher. I taught middle school English and drama for a few years but wasn’t very satisfied doing it.
I finally issued myself a two-year challenge to do everything I could to get an acting career going, and at the end of those two years I would take stock of my life and decide if it was worth continuing in that direction. That was twelve years ago. There definitely have continued to be challenges all along the way, but the rewards of doing the work that I love have made it worth it. I don’t think any artist ever overcomes all their doubts. To be an artist you need courage.
James Davis (Edmond Tyrone, youngest son of the troubled family): After performing in my first play in high school, I remember feeling a sense of purpose and identity in performing that would provide focus as I grew up. As far as overcoming possible doubts, I battle with possible doubts every day. I have to continue to ask myself, “Why do I do this?” The answer always comes back—it gives my life purpose and meaning and focus.
Paul Hebron (Mr. James Tyrone, patriarch of a crumbling family): Growing up in NYC, the first play I ever saw in person was Illya Darling, the musical adaptation of the film Never On Sunday. It starred Jules Dassin and the great Melina Mercouri. I was only 10 years old, and remember very little of the play itself, but when asked by the mother of my friend who had brought us that evening the inevitable question—”And what would you like to do when you grow up?” —I answered without hesitation, pointing to the stage, “That! I want to do that!”
Some eighteen years and many, many detours later, I decided to listen once again to that 10 year old’s voice, and pursue a career in the theatre.
What were the greatest hurdles in getting inside the head and heart of your character in O’Neill’s challenging play?
Josh: Jamie [who struggles with alcoholism] is often described by the other characters and in O’Neill’s stage directions as sneering and cynical. But that exterior presentation has to come from somewhere, and I think Jamie is in a great deal of emotional and existential pain. So a big challenge for me is opening myself to Jamie’s feelings, even as he defends himself by putting up walls of cynicism, mockery, and drunkenness.
James: The hardest element to acting Edmund is the amount of tension in my body as I play him. He has consumption and he’s a live wire at moments. Trying to find space in my body as I live through his tension is necessary to perform him every night. Otherwise, the physical pain is too much to live life on a daily basis.
Paul: James Tyrone is not an easily likable or approachable character, certainly not on this one long, eventful day in his family’s life. His stubbornness, his single mindedness, and his compulsive behavior toward money all seemed like obstacles on first glance, to getting to know the man underneath. But O’Neill’s writing eventually opens all those doors to a deeper and a more subtle understanding of what drives this man to do what he does, to his family, and ultimately to himself.
For the actor, working backwards as it were from the self-revelations in Act IV, to his behavior in the first three acts, a pattern emerges in his attempts to protect the things and the people he loves, and to fight and continue—and continue, and continue—to fight to keep alive his dream of Home and Love, and perhaps eventually redemption, if only with a small “r.” This struggle within himself humanizes him, and consequently makes him someone very understandable—at least to me.
Which quote from your role hit you personally the most?
James: “It was a great mistake my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a seagull or a fish.”
Josh: Jamie says to Edmund: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he saveth his brother from himself.” Jamie has the self-awareness to see that he is only going to continue to be a poisonous influence on his beloved brother, but he doesn’t have the ability to change. So he does the only thing he can do to try to protect Edmund: he warns him to stay away from him. O’Neill has written as much painful truth in the contradictions and complexity of that brother relationship as he has with the whole family.
Paul: “Thank God, I’ve kept my appetite and I’ve the digestion of a young man of twenty… if I am sixty-five!” This simple quote, from the earliest pages of Act I, begins the process of James both facing, and attempting to face down, his own mortality and sense of the future as a kind of ending to his dreams.
The past plays a seminal role in this play as it unfolds, for all the characters, but I think for James it is the future, his fear of what it may bring, and most importantly, its consequent demand that he finally face what he has denied from his past, that frightens him more than anything else.
He is terrified of ending up destitute and alone, and as the play progresses he sees his options for a viable future of real family and love dwindling, until he is finally forced by Edmund’s truth-telling to face his own past failures (and triumphs) in a final act of opening his heart to the truth.
Tragically, the play continues to an ending that suggests he may have learned very little indeed, and that his fears of a future without love and family will be realized. But for O’Neill I think, and certainly for me as an actor playing Tyrone, it is James’ willingness to fight on, regardless of that future, that ennobles and redeems him.
“The past is the present—and the future, too,” according to Mrs. Tyrone. What are your professional and personal dreams as a theater artist and a mensch?
Josh: To keep growing and keep challenging myself.
James: My professional and personal dreams are to have the strength to remain grateful, stay present, and continue to live peacefully in my limited time here on Earth.
Paul: Well, I question whether Mensch is a title one can confer upon oneself, so I’m not sure I can have any dreams or plans toward that end. As a professional theatre artist, at this stage of my career, my hopes and dreams are really very simple. To keep working on great plays with extraordinary people in theatres that support the artists first. And to keep doing that for as long as I possibly can.
I’d love to fall over on stage at the age of 95, unable to lift up Cordelia even one more time.
Running Time: Three hours and 45 minutes, including one intermission.
Long Day’s Journey into Night plays through Sunday, October 29, 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.