“In a real home, no one is ever lonely.”
You think you know a play, and then you see a really good production of it and realize that you didn’t know the play as well as you thought you did. That pleasant surprise was at the center of my experience watching Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Theatre In The Round Players.
Because O’Neill is one of the fathers of modern American drama, and a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s tempting to think that people just tackle “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for the same reason people climb a mountain, because it’s there. But there’s a reason it’s so seductive. It’s still a damn fine piece of theater over fifty years after it was originally written. Director Lynn Musgrave and her cast reminded me just how fine.
First up, I’d forgotten how funny the thing was. One doesn’t think of O’Neill as having much of a sense of humor. It’s been so long since I’d read the play or seen a production of it that I’d completely forgotten about the character of the family maid, Cathleen (the only one of several discussed servants we ever get to see). Cathleen provides very welcome comic relief throughout, and Rachel Finch takes full advantage of her limited stage time, making quite an amusing impression. You’d be tempted to call her a scene-stealer, but the other four characters and actors on display are too formidable to permit such theft.
I’d also forgotten that it’s not a tragedy about a family that hates each other. It’s a tragedy because they love each other, and still can’t save each other. Mother and wife Mary Tyrone (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) is spiraling back down into the morphine addiction her husband and grown sons hoped she’d beaten. But there’s a time in the opening act when we see the woman she once was, and is struggling to hang onto, however tenuously. Pistner helps the audience see the playful, if nervous, woman she longs to be – the place in the family structure she holds, and the damage it does to the family when she unravels. It is because we get to see how deeply the men in Mary’s life love her that we realize how painful it is to watch the drugs take her slowly away from them.
Mary’s woes are tied to the fate of her youngest son Edmund (Wade A. Vaughan). Edmund’s birth was the catalyst for Mary’s addiction – a doctor ill-advisedly prescribed morphine for her after a difficult pregnancy. Now a young man, Edmund’s health is failing, and watching her child suffer is more than Mary can bear. Like his mother, Edmund pretends that everything is fine. But the impending prognosis from the doctor hangs over this long day for the Tyrones. Their worst fear whispered amongst themselves, consumption, is confirmed. (I had to look it up – consumption is tuberculosis. Edmund had TB in 1912, over 30 years before any cure had come along. The best you could do was send someone to a sanitorium for rest and hope their health improved. Sometimes it did. Often, it didn’t.) Vaughan plays the contradictions in Edmund well. He’s not a weakling. His health just won’t support the life to which he’d become accustomed. He’s as addicted to adventure as his mother is to drugs. He’s closest to Mary, and tries mightily to reach her before she’s too far gone.
The family patriarch James Tyrone (Rob Frankel) has his own, more socially accepted, addictions. He’s obsessed with status, and stability. Unfortunately, the way he’s chosen to pursue them, he’s liable to end up with neither. He abandoned a possible career of note as a Shakespearean actor for the easier road of landing a key role and playing it over and over again, year after year. The crowd-pleaser keeps his family fed, and allows him to indulge in land speculation, but there’s a hint of sadness at the other acting life he left behind. And the obsession with buying land, not always wisely, has shoved other things like a real family homestead, and reliable health care, aside. These off-kilter priorities have the whole family paying the price. Frankel plays Tyrone as a believable combination of defensiveness and contrition. He understands his responsibility for some of the mess they’re in, but he also refuses to shoulder the whole load. Good intentions on his part, and the need for other family members to have personal responsibility for themselves, is the combination Tyrone hopes in vain will balance the scales and reverse their declining fortunes.
With less stage time than the other Tyrones, but no less impressive, Tom Sonnek brings a depth I’ve rarely seen to the role of Jamie. Older brother and bad influence for Edmund, a disappointment and embarrassment to his parents, Jamie could come off as the sort of annoying young man who never bothered to grow up. But in Sonnek’s hands, Jamie is something more. Just like any of the other Tyrones, even when he’s offstage, you feel his presence in the family dynamic, and how it affects the way the others interact. Here, Jamie is fully aware of his own faults, and owns up to them, which is why he’s more than willing to point out his father’s. Jamie never got out from under his father’s shadow, and family safety net means he never has to take full responsibility for his own life. But the reason Sonnek’s Jamie fights so vigorously with his father is because he loves the family, and wants them all to find a way to save it. Often Sonnek is most powerful when he doesn’t have any lines at all. He never draws focus away from the central player in any scene, but if you catch him out of the corner of your eye, the play of emotions across his face, particularly when he’s watching someone he loves in pain, is heartbreaking. Like those around him with more lines, Sonnek creates a full human being that leaves an indelible mark.
Director Musgrave (with dramaturgical assistance from cast member Pistner, stage manager Harold Edwards and costume designer Dwight Larsen) has created a lean and effective version of the script. Even with an hour shaved off the potential running time, the production still clocks in at three and a half hours, with two intermissions for you to re-caffeinate (I did). But the length of time we spend with the Tyron family feels right – not rushed, but also not overly long. There is no repetition here. Even when the family revisits the same grievances they have with one another, the ground has shifted beneath them in the intervening time. The clashes have more depth, more urgency, both for them and for the audience, for we’ve gotten to know the characters, and their patterns, better. You never feel like anyone’s marking time, or repeating themselves. Even the quiet moments are charged because no one ever forgets what’s at stake – the family’s survival.
Though the production is primarily a vehicle for words and performance, a special nod must be made to the lighting design by A. Camille Holthaus. Unassuming much of the time, the lighting delivers when it really counts. Light and darkness become characters themselves as the day wears on and the family pulls in different directions. The moments just before the end of each act are quite lovely – amber light catching a character in solitary reflection – a snapshot of what’s gone before and what’s to come.
If you’ve never spent that long day with the Tyrones, Theater In The Round Players’ production is a first-rate introduction. If it’s been a while since you’ve visited them, this is a perfect excuse to get reacquainted.
Very Highly Recommended.
Due to an illness in the cast, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” had to push back their opening a week, so there’s a shorter run than the usual for Theater In The Round Players. “Long Day’s Journey…” only has two more weekends, this one and next, closing on May 18, 2008. Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Theater In The Round is located at 245 Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Tickets are $20 (discounts are available for students and seniors on Fridays and Sundays). For reservations, call 612-333-3010. For further information, visit www.theatreintheround.org