This is an archived story. A creaky Connecticut seaside home living room becomes a family battlefield in Palm Beach Dramaworks production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
The forbidden nature of the play, written by O’Neill in 1941 who then instructed it to not be read for 25 years and never be performed, makes it all the more intriguing. O’Neill wrote the thinly disguised biographical drama about his long deceased dysfunctional family, who struggled with addiction and illness and guilt beyond repair.
His widow managed to skirt O’Neill’s strict instructions by donating the play to Yale University and when the play was finally published and produced it was hailed as his best work, winning awards, turned into a film and resurrected on Broadway many times.
In a recent New York Times article playwright Sam Shepard said in an article about resurrecting his play “Buried Child” that he considered Long Day’s Journey Into Night “the greatest play ever written in America, but what I wanted to do was to destroy the idea of the American family drama.” “Buried Child”, a Pulitzer Prize winner along with “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, was performed at Dramaworks last season, and can be seen as an extension of O’Neill’s brutal, pioneering work about families and circumstances that cannot escape deeply hidden secrets.
The show features the Tyrone family – father James, mother Mary, son James Jr., and son Edmund (the sickly son based on Eugene himself), on one long day that dredges up every step and mis-step of family history that has led to the current misery. Indeed as the day dawns there is hope for a new start as every new day promises, but the demons of the past and grip of addictions and ailments won’t let the present or future alone by the time night falls.
One large living room set stages all the action with four acts. Although the costumes – linen summer suits for the men and long skirts and high-necked blouses for the women – place the show firmly in the early 1900s, the story could take place today as the family struggles to come to terms with their own failings and how they have failed others.
Dennis Creaghan as James, the patriarch, has an authoritative air despite his regret at not being a more versatile actor and holding on to his real estate so tightly that his son may not be able to get the expensive treatment he needs for his tuberculosis. Physically he commands the space and has the looks and air of believability through the toughest scenes. Reassuring his drug-addled wife and trying to explain his decisions to his son put him in the constant position of being offensive then defensive.
The sons, John Leonard Thompson as James Jr.; Michael Stewart Allen, in his company debut, as Edmund, have tough roles trying to balance sibling rivalry with thwarted ambition and parental judgement.
Maureen Anderman as Mary is the real standout, addicted to morphine since the loss of a previous child, Mary struggles to hold on to her looks, memory and sanity in the midst of the male drama surrounding her. Hiding her drug use and addictions, she encourages the maid, played by Carey Urban, to water down the whiskey they are not supposed to be drinking. The sons also water the bottle down, so by the time James has a drink late in the play he spits it out in disgust, realizing how much everyone has been hiding the truth, a metaphor for the uneasy family dynamic.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a difficult play to watch, as wave after wave of revelation surfaces over the course of the 3 hours. The lighting plays a large role, as the French doors leading to the porch are opened and closed, walked through and gestured at multiple times as the morning light glows and dims toward evening as an actual fog rolls in. An overhead lamp is manually turned on and off several times by the James and Edmund, who remark it’s either “too bright in here” or “too dark in here”, depending on perspective.
I had one unusual experience with the stage lighting as early in the play the maid adjusts a framed picture on a shelf that managed to hit an overhead spotlight that glared straight out to where I was sitting. The light was so strong it was difficult to look at the stage until I moved a few seats over. While this is intensely personal for O’Neill, probably everyone watching can find something to relate to in the characters dilemmas. For O’Neill it was a “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood” and a way for him to face down old ghosts and hope for “pity, understanding and forgiveness” for his family.
The story still holds its tragic pull, as you hope for some way out for the family, though you fear the past will never let go of its haunted grip as the play ends with Mary clutching her wedding gown, praying and staring into the sky, perhaps wishing for a way to erase all that has happened and start over again.
As dissected as the American family has been in recent decades, it’s remarkable to realize the strength and power this story had when it was first released. Coming out of the war years when America was set on prosperity and dreams of being in the arts were prevalent, but often thwarted by fiscal realities, illness or inability to see a dream through. This is not a poor family by any means, but their wealth still doesn’t allow them a firm way out or leg up on the situation. Each character is addicted to something at a time when there were no easy or advanced treatments, and addictions were shamed.
The Long Day’s Journey Into Night production directed by William Hayes, certainly does this hardened chestnut proud. Scenic design is by K. April Soroko , costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas, and sound design is by Matt Corey. The playbill gives a nice history of the show and O’Neill’s family history.
Plan a visit to enjoy this new production. The show runs through March 6th, 2016 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, located on 201 Clematis St, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. You can order tickets online 24/7 at www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or by phone at (561) 514-4042