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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Superb Production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night

Also see Richard's reviews of Dead Certain and The Secret Garden

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Mark Anderson Phillips and
T. Edward Webster

San Jose Repertory Theatre is currently presenting a highly emotional production of Eugene O'Neill last produced play, Long Day's Journey into Night, with a brilliant cast. This is certainly the finest and the most emotionally raw American play of the 20th century.  In 1941 the playwright gave his third wife, Carlotta, a play for their anniversary. He had been torturing himself writing this play since it was autobiographical in scope. He would come out of his study weeping after writing the script most days. O'Neill told his wife that the play should not be published or produced until 25 years after his death. He died in 1953. Carlotta thought that this play would make her husband one of the most significant writers of the 20th century and she gave permission to have it performed in Sweden 18 months later.   The play changed the face of American theatre.

I saw the third performance of the classical drama during the winter of 1956 at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York.  The cast consisted of Fredric March and his wife Florence Eldridge as James and Mary Tyrone, and Jason Robards Jr. and Bradford Dillman playing sons James Jr. (Jamie) and Edmund.  A young Katherine Ross was the maid Cathleen.

Over the years I have seen some great actors playing the elder James Tyrone, including Ralph Richardson, Brian Dennehy and Jack Lemmon. I saw Jason Robards Jr. take over the role at the Neil Simon Theatre in 1988.  I also saw fantastic performances of Mary by Vanessa Redgrave, Katherine Hepburn, Claire Boom and Bethel Leslie.   American Conservatory Theatre did a grand production of the drama several years ago with Josef Sommer and Pamela Payton Wright playing the couple, with super performances by Marco Barricelli and James Butler Harner as James Jr. and Edmund.

The Tyrone family is the granddaddy of all dysfunctional families ever seen on the stage. The play paints a harrowing picture of denial and despair, alcoholism and drug addiction.

Long Day's Journey Into Night takes place over a single day in the Connecticut coast summer home of the Tyrones in the summer of 1912.  The scenes are divided into morning, afternoon and night. The play centers around Mary Tyrone (Kimberly King), the convent-bred mother who has a morphine addiction.  She has been to a sanitarium for this obsession and is wavering on the brink of losing her long battle with the dependence. The patriarch, James Tyrone (Paul Vincent O'Connor), is a former Shakespearean actor who had one great success in the American Theatre playing the same romantic hero over and over again for many years (this is based on a true account of O'Neill's father who played in a stage rendition of The Count of Monte Cristo over 6000 times). The chronic miser father invests money in land schemes rather then spend his wealth on his family.

The Tyrone's oldest son Jamie (Mark Anderson Phillips) is a self-destructive actor who has taken to drink and whores.  His younger brother Edmund (T. Edward Webster) has been diagnosed with tuberculosis (the playwright himself suffered through a bout of the illness and he named his alter ego after a brother who died as a child). The sons believe that the father's cheapness has caused the illness of the mother.

The family members drive each other away with hurtful words and then rush back to repair the damage they've inflicted with frantic caresses. There are strange father son relationships that border on love/hate; sons vying for their mother's love; and the sibling's own love/hate relationship.  The latter is brought to the forefront in the incredible last scene when Jamie, who has had quite a lot to drink, loses his cool and warns Edmund to beware of the part of him that's dead and wants him to die.

Director Jonathan Moscone has trimmed forty-five minutes off the play and offers a clear, distinguished and thoroughly knowledgeable production of the family's descent into hell. This three-hour production with one intermission has all of the emotional fireworks of the original four-act drama.

All of the players are in top form and it is hard to pick a favorite. Kimberly King (has played leading roles across the country, including the Intiman in Seattle) is amazing as the morphine-addicted mother. She will take your breath away with her transition of emotions from nervous, hankie-twisting tension to dreamy narcotic escape during the night. She is astounding as she goes from wraithlike femininity to a startling explosion of emotional and physical violence.

Paul Vincent O'Connor (16 years with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recently in Beth Henley's Ridiculous at South Coast Rep), with a slight Irish accent, is superb as the skin-flint James Tyrone. He shows the potent sexual warmth as he enfolds Mary in his arms after an outburst, and yet he is truly astounding on his flip side, seething with anger at his sons in many of the scenes. He shows the wonderful warm side with Jamie in the last scene of the play.

Mark Anderson Phillips (Major Barbara, Family Butchers, Around the World in 80 Days, Salome) gives a superlative performance as Jamie, an emotional wreck stuck with his constant drinking. His last scene with Jamie is a real tour de force of brilliant acting. One can see the tension in this character through the outstanding acting of Phillips.

T. Edward Webster (The Rivals, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Blue/Orange) is extraordinary as the younger Edmund.  This is one of the best roles in his distinguished career of Bay Area acting.  The scenes between Jamie and Edmund are both terribly funny and truly agonizing. Both actors capture the electric intimacy and rivalry the brothers have. Webster is at his best in the last scene, giving a richly shaded reading of the sensitive and physically tormented seagoing poet who wishes he had been a sea gull. 

Sarah Nealis (Moonlight & Magnolias, Iphigenia at Aulis has a small but effective role as the maid Cathleen.  She plays the character with a lilting Irish accent and makes the most of this small part in the second act.

Annie Smart's set design is an excellent reproduction of the middle-class summer home in New England.  Lighting designer Lap-Chi Chu gives a wonderful atmosphere to the whole production, turning the set from morning to afternoon light and then beautifully to a night effect, with fog coming through the scrim in the background at intervals. Sometimes you can see Mary wandering in a morphine stupor behind the scrim during the night scenes. B. Modern's costumes are perfect for an upper middle-class family of the early 20th century. 

Long Day's Journey Into Night played through February 25th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. 

Their next production will be Nixon's Nixon opening on March 24th and running through April 22nd. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or visit www.SJRep.com


Photo: Pat Kirk


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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