Long Day's Journey Into Night
at the North Lakeside Cultural Center
For years I've been hoping the American critical establishment would break its infatuation with Eugene O'Neill, who is supposed to have single-handedly transformed superficial, derivative American theater into a serious art form, detailing the American social and psychic landscape more accurately than any other playwright before or since. All this about a writer who has to his name more clumsy, forced, second-rate scripts than masterpieces. All this about a man who, in Mary McCarthy's telling phrase, wrote with "the wooden verisimilitude, the flat dead echoless sound of stale slang." Yet if you've got ten hours to spare to watch two of O'Neill's Pulitzer-winning works--three and a half hours for the Goodman's Long Day's Journey Into Night and six and a half for Strange Interlude--you might be convinced the American critical establishment has understated its case. Whether eschewing melodrama or accepting it wholeheartedly, these productions bring O'Neill to life and prove his greatness once again.
Acclaim has been most hyperbolic in regard to Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill's brutal, autobiographical 1941 four-act drama. Though O'Neill insisted the play was too personal to ever be performed, critics have called it "the highest achievement of the American realistic theater" and "the only really great American play." At first the Goodman's set appears to validate the hyperbole, asking us to cower once again before O'Neill's genius. Although the setting is the Tyrones' supposedly cheap, dingy summer home, designer Santo Loquasto has created an abode that seems to have 15,000 square feet and 90-foot ceilings. The scale is so gigantic one almost expects the actors to appear on stilts.
But the moment former matinee idol James Tyrone and his wife, Mary, enter in a moment of pedestrian domestic bliss, the play shrinks instantly to life-size, drawing us in. Thanks to the nuanced, gentle touch Brian Dennehy and Pamela Payton-Wright give their opening moments, the Tyrones turn from looming literary figures into likable, seemingly unremarkable next-door neighbors with a true and abiding affection for each other. In a few deft minutes, director Robert Falls makes us want to spend a long evening with the Tyrones.
This understated but precise treatment sets up the disintegration of affection that follows, which is never monotonous or overwrought in this production. The poison of discontent has already begun to seep into this moment of happiness: some barely discernible anxiety clutches at Mary. She is not nervous, she insists jokingly, and is anything the matter with her hair? Her husband flinches almost imperceptibly, as if trying not to concern himself with his wife's trivial worries--or trying to convince her that he's unconcerned. These actors make whatever is transpiring fleeting but indelible, and somehow dire. When their sons enter--consumptive aspiring writer Edmund (David Cromer) and his alcoholic brother, Jamie (Steve Pickering)--the family begins bickering. Jamie takes a jab at his father's snoring, prompting the senior Tyrone to accuse his son of throwing his life away reading the pony sheets. Then both fall silent. Thus the day begins as one imagines it always does for this family--charge, countercharge, meaningless truce.
As the play progresses, O'Neill sinks the Tyrones further into their destructive, immobilizing ways, revealing the agonizing wounds inflicted by marriage, parenthood, and sonship. Tyrone spent his life on the road, either dragging his wife with him or leaving her behind in rented cottages. His niggardliness has left her bitter and resentful and contributed to her addiction to morphine: after the birth of younger son Edmund, Tyrone hired a cheap quack who offered the drug as a panacea. Stuck again in the summer home she hates, Mary needs a fix, a need intensified by Edmund's failing health and by her guilt at blaming him for her habit. Edmund can't bear to have his mother abandon him emotionally again, and he's convinced his father is too cheap to send him to a private sanatorium. Jamie resents Edmund for his literary talents and despises his mother for falling back into addiction, causing him to lose faith in his own ability to control his drinking.
These complications are the stuff of melodrama--and they're all culled from O'Neill's life. It's even slightly sanitized: Edmund, O'Neill's surrogate, hasn't experienced the divorce and suicide attempt the playwright did. O'Neill's achievement is his ability to distance himself from the mire of his past and orchestrate its elements with precision and artistry, especially difficult given the absence of a traditional plot. This is not so much a play as a kinetic portrait of paralysis, "a lacerating round-robin of recrimination, self-dramatization, lies that deceive no one, confessions that never expiate the crime," in Walter Kerr's description of the original production. With hardly a rhetorical flourish--there are only a handful of lines with much overt literary merit--O'Neill conveys, perhaps more powerfully than any other American playwright, the emotional truth of a family in the midst of collapse.
It is this emotional truth that Falls's cast captures so thrillingly in the first two acts. Feeling this family's dynamics in their bones, the actors keep their characters poised on the brink of emotional disaster, conveying the psychological consequences of even the most trivial incidents. When a calmer Mary comes downstairs in the middle of the second act and says she's been resting, then blathers on as usual about nothing, we see that a look of stonelike dread has fallen across Jamie's face. It's all we need to understand that his mother has started using morphine again, and that the family will begin its descent in earnest. Moments like this reveal the wisdom of Loquasto's towering set: these characters are trapped at the bottom of an enormous pit.
Falls's cast functions as a perfectly integrated unit (with the exception of Susan Bennett in the thankless, largely superfluous role of Cathleen, the Tyrones' housekeeper). It's not Payton-Wright alone who makes Mary such a heartbreaking figure, condemning herself for her drug addiction while denying its existence; it's the effect she produces on the men around her. In effect each character creates the others; Dennehy can't be James Tyrone unless his wife and sons show us the smothering effect he has on them. It's pointless to single out anyone for praise, but it is gratifying to see Cromer and Pickering, two local heroes who've improved steadily over the past decade, emerge as master craftsmen, bringing as much nuance, style, and sheer guts to the play as veterans Dennehy and Payton-Wright.
By intermission it seems the Goodman has something of a masterpiece going. But the emotional volatility drops off in the second half. Act three opens with Mary and Cathleen sharing whiskey in the evening, after Mary has continued to shoot up throughout the day, but it seems Payton-Wright has taken a bit too much: Mary no longer struggles with her addiction or the pain that drives her to the needle. Instead she reminisces in a detached, even tone. This general lowering of the stakes continues in the final act, when the Tyrone men meet and begin to expose their pasts; they're not driven to make their fateful confessions with the kind of desperation that propels them in the first half. It's almost as if the cast had decided during intermission that the Tyrones have resigned themselves to hopelessness, forgetting that the characters' struggle to extricate themselves from hopelessness is what gives the play its urgency.
The acting in the second half is every bit as careful and intelligent as in the first, and moments of real crisis do erupt. But an odd complacency diminishes the ominous weight that had loomed over the family. Given the intensity of the first two acts and the cast's vast reserves of talent, you'd think the company could find a way to follow through on their initial powerful, nuanced performances.
The 1928 Strange Interlude is one of O'Neill's most audacious plays, a nine-act potboiler in which the characters stop and voice their thoughts every 30 seconds or so. When not praised to the heavens, the work has been trashed for its ridiculous onslaught of asides and excessive plot.
Nina's fiance Gordon, a World War I flying ace, has been killed in action, and Nina is racked by guilt for refusing to "give herself" to him. It turns out her possessive father convinced Gordon to respect her honor, hoping Gordon would die and he could keep his daughter to himself. Learning her father's secret, Nina launches into neurotic overdrive, whoring with all the maimed soldiers in the local hospital. Convinced this won't do, fussbudget friend Charlie and family doctor Darrell prescribe a hasty marriage to boyish milksop Sam, even though both Charlie and Darrell secretly desire Nina (at least, closeted homosexual Charlie tries to convince himself he does). Nina consents and is soon pregnant with Sam's child. At that point Sam's mother enters and explains that insanity runs in the family so Nina must have an abortion--but she mustn't divorce Sam because that would drive the boy mad. She'd best find a suitable man for breeding purposes and pass the kid off as Sam's. And that's only the first third of the play.
O'Neill spent much of his career railing against the melodramatic excess that made his father a star, but this is arguably the greatest melodrama ever--and director Linda LeVeque refuses to apologize for it. In this full-length production (which starts at two in the afternoon and breaks once for dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant), she and her adventuresome cast latch onto the play's excesses and cling for dear life. Critics may tell us how dark and serious O'Neill is, but this production is riotous fun.
Which isn't to say that LeVeque and company cheapen or lampoon the script. The show is packed with real tragedy and heartache, thanks in large part to Karyn Lynn Dale's willingness to plunge headfirst into Nina's torment. But the cast's playful approach allows us to buy into the creaky theatrics and effusive cataclysms, spread relentlessly across 25 years. In essence the actors invite their audience to play along, to indulge their delight in lurid catastrophe. It may be absurd for the characters to tell us their thoughts, but it provides the same thrill as hours of good gossip.
The show's lightness is an especially apt choice considering that it's being performed in an old mansion on the lake, where the audience is led from room to room for various acts, thereby exposing every bit of fakery. We can't help but feel a little silly sitting in a clump while actors carry on a few feet away, but silliness is part of the plan. Certainly we're not as silly as the characters who tell us what they're thinking or the actors who pretend they don't overhear. And the cast never seem to lose their delight in this grisly mess. When it was over, I was ready for another six hours.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.