Long Day's Journey Into Night
Is this really the greatest of American plays, or are there other considerations that only make it appear so? For example, how influenced are we by the fact that O'Neill is still the only American playwright ever to have won the Nobel Prize? And don't the circumstances of the play's first publication and performance convince us that it is truly something extraordinary? O'Neill wrote it in his later years but stipulated that it not be produced until 25 years after his death. He died in 1953. Only three years later, his widow allowed it to be staged. The accepted reason is that she thought it was too great a work to be withheld from the public for another 22 years. The cynic in me whispers: She knew she didn't have 22 more years left, so she decided to make some money off of it while she could.
I'm not sure why O'Neill wanted to withhold the play from the public for so long. It's clearly autobiographical, but all the main characters in the play (except himself) were already long dead. I suspect, though, that if O'Neill had let it be performed while he was still alive, the reviewers would have said that he was tapped out creatively and had to resort to exploiting his own family. Which, in essence, he doesbut he creates something pretty great out of it. Whether it's the greatest, I have my doubts.
The play takes place on the summer day in 1912 when O'Neill (here called Edmund Tyrone) received his death sentence: the diagnosis of consumption (tuberculosis). We the audience know that he survived the disease, but everybody in the play assumes that he will die. In real life, O'Neill's close encounter with death in a TB sanatorium seems to have been the stimulus that turned him into a logorrheic genius. (Similarly, Dostoievsky as a young radical was literally standing in front of the firing squad when his death sentence was commuted. At least O'Neill didn't churn out 500 page novelsjust five-hour-long plays.)
Long Day's Journey is indeed long. This production has been somewhat abridged, but still runs about three hours including one intermission. I found the first half absolutely riveting, the second half in large part tedious. There are four major characters: the father, James Tyrone, a famous retired actor; Mary Tyrone, the mother; Jamie Tyrone, the elder brother, also an actor but not as successful as his father was; and Edmund, the future playwright. (A young maid also has a few scenes.) The first half is partly a detective storywhat's the matter with Mary?and it held my interest throughout. Clues are dropped here and there, until eventually you can figure out what's ailing her. (Most people know already going into the play, but I don't want to spoil it for those who don't.)
The play is like an opera (think Wagner) without music. There are arias, duets, trios and quartets. It's a play of regrets, accusations, recriminations, understanding and forgivenessexcept that in this family, forgiveness lasts a couple of nanoseconds. The arc of a typical accusation is: a) I blame you for screwing up my life/my mother's life/my brother's life/your own life; b) I understand why you did what you did, and I forgive you; c) But I still blame you.
Several times one character tells another to forget the past, it was a long time ago. But that's exactly the problem with the past for these people: it cannot be forgotten. The past is their present and their future. They try to escape with alcohol and other means, but there is no escape for them really except deaththe metaphorical "Night" of the title.
We learn most of what we need to know about this family in the first half: the father's incorrigible cheapness, the mother's "problem," Jamie's drinking and whoring, Edmund's illness. The second part rehashes a lot of this. There is some additional illumination of the characters, but mainly it slowly drifts off into darkness. There is one beautiful poetic monologue by Edmund about his time at sea and the mystical experiences he had there, but it almost seems to have been dropped in from another play. It may be the high point of the play for some viewers, but I found it strangely incongruous. The rest of the dialogue sounds remarkably contemporary, even though it takes place a hundred years ago. At the end of the play, nothing is resolved. It can never be, for this family.
The play rises and falls on the strength of its actors and director, I think. Paul Ford and Debi Kierst as James and Mary Tyrone are simply flawlessso much so, that there's almost nothing more I can say about them. I don't know if it is my imagination or the makeup or her acting, but Debi Kierst seems to become paler and paler as the play goes on, until at the end she is essentially a walking ghost. It is perfect.
Peter Diseth, who plays Jamie, is one of my favorite local actors (his Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross from a couple years ago at the Vortex is one of the indelible performances of my theatergoing life). He is fine here, but for some reason, and I can't put my finger on it, I don't think this is the right role for him. Blake Magnusson is well cast, physically at least. Tall and thin, he could be a consumptive, and he looks like he could weather into the craggy, glowering O'Neill of some well-known photographs. His performance is much better than adequate, but somehow didn't excite me. Jill Lindsay is very good in the smaller role of Cathleen, the maid, and she does "tipsy" perfectly, not overplaying it.
David Richard Jones does a wonderful directing job. The staging is in-the-round (more precisely, in-the-square) and a lot of effort must have been devoted to blocking the actors. Careful attention is paid to when the characters touch one another, almost touch, or back away. The set by Dean Eldon Squibb is perfect, with an appropriately worn-down Persian rug and an amazing antique light fixture. I appreciate the costumes by Jaime Pardo, especially the tattered and stained suit worn by James Tyrone at the beginning (this was in the days when men wore suits to do yard work). The lighting is all-important at the end of the play, and it is executed perfectly by the lighting designer Brian Mc Namara and lighting operator Jacob Campbell.
In short, this is as good a production of Long Day's Journey as you are likely to see. If I have any complaints at all, it is due to the play itself. I think I just don't have the attention span that people had back when O'Neill wrote it. And, had it not been praised to high heaven ever since it opened in 1956, I think I would be less critical of it. But these are my problems, not yours. You should see the Vortex production while you have the chance.
Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill is being presented at the Vortex Theatre on Buena Vista SE, just south of Central Ave. in Albuquerque, through April 15, 2012. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $15. Reservations at www.vortexabq.org.