Putting messed-up families on the stage has worked for playwrights from Sophocles to Shakespeare to Sam Shepard, but few if any family tragedies have been packed with more power and pathos than Eugene O'Neill's “Long Day's Journey Into Night.” Perhaps that's because the play so closely reflects its author's life, and he poured a freakish amount of juice into it.
The scintillating new production of O'Neill's masterpiece that opened Sunday in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's intimate Thomas Theatre testifies to the play's ongoing power to move audiences. Tautly directed by Christopher Liam Moore, the nearly four-hour production zips by with the feel of the right actors in the right play at the right time.
But then, with its themes of family, loneliness, guilt, blame and addiction, “Long Day's Journey” always feels timely. Time, indeed, is almost a character in the play.
The action unfolds over one long, foggy August day in 1912 at the Tyrone family's summer cottage in Connecticut, rendered by set designer Christopher Acebo with a living room table and chairs and a great staircase through part of which a tree grows. As the action unfolds, every problem these troubled characters face has its roots in a past whose power stretches inexorably forward as if decreed by some modern oracle at Delphi.
James Tyrone's (Michael Winters) miserliness stems from the grinding poverty of an Irish immigrant family, which left him with a morbid fear of the poorhouse even though he's been a commercially successful actor/producer for years. Mary Cavan Tyrone's (Judith-Marie Bergan) drug addiction began when a cheap doctor hired by skinflint James gave her morphine when she had a painful delivery of the couple's younger son, Edmond. The fog outside is an analogue of Mary's increasing inner fog.
Elder son Jamie (Jonathan Haugen) and younger son (by 10 years) Edmond (Danforth Comins) were scarred by their father's alcoholism, their mother's addiction, both parents' loss of their dreams and a rootless life in cheap hotels on the melodrama circuit, where James (like O'Neill's father), was forever stuck in an artless production of “The Count of Monte Cristo” that destroyed him artistically but was too profitable to quit.
“Long Day's Journey” is devoid of conventional plot, moving from morning to late at night through a sequence of increasingly harrowing scenes that often pit two characters against each other, with the duos constantly changing. The focus is not on what happens next but on the revelation of character through the yin and yang of the love-hate games these people play.
Mary, who is relapsing into addiction after a rehab stint, gets the lines through which O'Neill is speaking to us, or to himself.
“None of us can help the things life does to us,” she says.
“The past is always present,” she says.
“Why do I feel so lonely?” she asks.
It is a luminous performance by Bergan as the tortured Mary, who in spite of everything makes us believe she still loves her drunken, penny-pinching husband and wastrel sons, even as she drifts away into a drugged fog.
Winters' James is a man burdened with the knowledge that he squandered his talent and is left with two hard-drinking failures that disrespect him and a wife who is drifting away. He is wrong about everything, and he goes around turning the lights out to save pennies, and yet he wins our sympathy.
Haugen and Comins deliver convincing performances as the scarred spawn of this ill-fated match. Cynical, alcoholic Jamie introduced his younger brother to the ways of drinking and whoring. Haugen convincingly loves and hates his younger brother at the same time as he blames his parents for his life.
Comins' Edmond is a disillusioned romantic and the closest thing to a point of view character in the play. He's been diagnosed with consumption (tuberculosis) and faces a sanitorium or possible death. His perceptions are clearer than the others'.
In the end there is overarching loneliness. These people want to reach out but don't know how, and when they do, there's nobody there. In a 75-year-old play, this is oddly in tune with some recent research on the nature of addiction.
“Long Day's Journey” brims with guilt and rage in the present and the impacted ghosts of a family's past. Under Moore's direction, the final impression is tragic but not hopeless. O'Neill wrote these lorn characters with sweat and blood but also love, and Moore and company in the end leave us with a glimpse of the possibility of forgiveness.
Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at firstname.lastname@example.org.