When Eugene O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he wrote what he knew. The 1957 Pulitzer Prize winning play is the dramatization of his life, with characters, plotting and detail so analogous with what actually happened that O’Neill stipulated that it was only to be performed after his death. 60 years later, it’s a play that still packs an emotional punch, even if the production at The Geffen Playhouse gradually veers into languid repetition.
For those who appreciate art as a Freudian detective mystery, or, as a higher form of gossip where fictional characters and events correspond directly to real people and real events, the play is a revelatory exposition of Eugene O’Neill. For those who care not one jot about the play’s source material, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a comprehensive study of a family in turmoil, beholden to the past, damned to resurrect old tragedies anew, over and over and over, as a single day progresses into night.
A parlour room occupies the stage at the Geffen Playhouse. It is furnished with the markers of the well-to-do: a chaise-lounge, a bookcase of immaculately kept Shakespeare. Stage left is a porch that opens out onto the ample New England lands belonging to the Tyrone family. At the back is a walkway to the staffed kitchens and a staircase to the Tyrone’s living quarters.
Despite the finery, there are foreboding portents. Fog besets the stage, wind rushes around the curtains. There are plenty of lamps in the parlour but they are rarely turned on, as is the want of miserly James Tyrone, master of the house. Played with authority by Alfred Molina, Tyrone is a grand old actor who made a financial killing investing in a play in which he starred a thousand times over. In this financial security, Tyrone happened upon creative death. However, his stagnant career is the least of his family’s worries.
From the first we are introduced to the shaky facade of familial normality, a see-through theatre played out by the Tyrones for each others’ benefit, and matched by the way the parlour room’s beams seep out of the stage ceiling and into the theatre as a vanishing fiction. James’ wife, Mary, played by Jane Kaczmarek, clings to the illusion of a normal family life with frenzied desperation. Ultimately, she is but the most extreme of the four Tyrones. The two sons, Jamie (Stephen Louis Grush) and Edmund (Colin Woodell), join their parents on the carousel of resentment, recycling regrets and pointing the finger at whichever family member strays into the crosshair of argumentation.
O’Neill portrays the past as inescapable, “Forget everything and face nothing.” The play imparts the irrefutable impression that the past lives of the characters have taken place—decades of accumulate hurt—and that the arguments surrounding the emotional damage have also taken place many times before. Their lives are reduced to the insults they cast on each other: Jamie is a good-for-nothing drunk, Edmund a reckless chancer. This is not the first whirl of the bitter carousel, though the grave atmosphere suggests it may well be the last.
The script has aged well with a few exceptions. O’Neill’s observations on character and relationships are evergreen and pointed, meditating on the Sisyphean and arguably contradictory tasks of changing oneself while accepting the reoccurring faults of others.
Nevertheless, over half-a-century after its first production the script now appears excessively conservative in one way, and overly explicit in another. An aversion to stating certain words such as suicide while constantly talking about the topic pervades the play—a propriety that applies to all four main characters without applying to their personalities, even considering the play’s setting in the first decades of the 20th century. This prurience goes against the men’s conduct, the sons’ ideologies, and the tendency of all four to talk and talk and talk.
Each character has an overwrought articulacy over their state of mind and an easy willingness to share their inner-demons. These two theatrical tics form an explicitness that dates the play. However skilfully O’Neill plants the exposition, by the end of the final act, one feels that there is not one skeleton left unexhumed. The piling on of story after story eventually wears down empathy and interest, like being passed endless photo albums by a stranger who’s manhandled you into his home. Sympathies extend only so far, and in this production sympathies don’t stretch the full four acts.
Life, luck and God are interchangeably cited by interchangeable Tyrones as the invisible source of their collective and individual woe. Whichever, the most threatening woe is the illness of Edmund, whose sickly pallor and obligatory coughing indicate something more serious than the “summer cold”— Mary’s oft-repeated and plainly delusional explanation. Edmund’s illness sparks the bonfire of Mary’s loose grip on reality.
As Mary descends into madness, so does the play. The quick wit and revelatory sniping of conversation is submerged by Kaczmarek’s raving portrayal of mental illness. It’s a caricature of what was ill-understood in the era of O’Neill, an over-pitched and one-tone state of mania hardly necessitated by O’Neill’s lines. In truth, Molina’s brash but subtle turn as James Tyrone stands apart from the rest of the cast, and not in a good way. His occasional bouts of despondent silence communicate so much so efficiently, while the rest of the Tyrones say a lot with little impact and to ever-decreasing returns.
An actor stronger than his cast is mirrored by a production weaker than its play. Directed by Jeanie Hackett, the performance simply fizzles out as the arguments run into each other indistinguishably. The pacing is off, and certain production values leave a lot to be desired, for example, the needless use of projected video, and an inaudible recording of O’Neill reciting a poem.
Still, the charms of the play are buried within, and there is a bitter irony to watching A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, enjoying it moderately, but contemplating how it was performed in yesteryear, and wondering how much better it all could have been this time around if only things turned out differently.