Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dramaworks’ Long Day’s Journey into Night –a Landmark Production

Last night a hushed, frequently stunned audience witnessed Dramaworks’ long anticipated production of Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. It takes America’s greatest playwright to reach the inner depths of his tortured soul, creating a virtual verisimilitude of his own family life (it is as autobiographical as any play ever written; he viewed writing it as an act of forgiveness).  And it takes a great production company to nurture this spiraling inward play, sustaining the drama for more than three intense hours.  All four of the actors portraying the Tyrone family deliver electrifying and physically exhausting performances.  Although this was the company’s very first performance of the play in front of an audience (a “preview”), it was flawless to my eye, a master class of staging, directing and acting.

Long Day’s Journey is but a day’s journey although it encapsulates a lifetime. It unfolds one late summer’s day in 1912 at the family’s home by the Connecticut seashore, a place not unlike O’Neill’s summer childhood in New London.  The action unremittingly reveals well worn emotional paths to the present. Love transitions to hate and hate to anger and then to contrition and guilt and thus back to love.  The Tyrone family knows how to love, but does not know how to be loving.  It is a study of emotional ups and downs, the audience rising with the few crests and falling with the numerous troughs.

The play revolves around the life of James Tyrone, the family patriarch, an actor whose “good bad luck” was to “find the big money-maker,” a romantic part in Monte Cristo, a play that became a box office success and had the Tyrone family on the road for most of their formative lives. It brought money, a considerable amount in those days.  But Tyrone sold his soul, knowing he could have been a great Shakespearian actor.  That shame shadows him and corrodes his family.  He is obsessed with money, the wastefulness of leaving lights on, the imprudence of hiring expensive doctors for his wife, and his son, Edmund, and is continually derided by his family for being a tightwad.

Maureen Anderman, Dennis Creaghan
The role of James Tyrone is among the most challenging in American Drama and veteran Dramaworks actor Dennis Creaghan makes it his own, embracing the alternating sadness, anger, regret, and even love.  Alcohol is his refuge, its tentacles reaching out to his sons.  It is a wrenching performance by Creaghan and although much of the family’s pain can be traced to him, James had his own hardships as a child and one’s heart goes out to him thanks to Creaghan’s sensitive portrayal.

Mary, his wife, is played by Maureen Anderman, a last minute replacement for the original actress who had to leave the production for personal reasons.  It is a difficult part to play with adequate preparation, but to perform this demanding role on short notice (although the opening was delayed six days) is simply remarkable, and Anderman being such a pro, a Broadway actress who we’ve seen before at Dramaworks, at the Maltz Theatre, and most recently at the Westport Country Playhouse this past summer, delivers a performance which theatre lovers will always remember and associate her with.  She is achingly heartbreaking as Tyrone’s wife.  O’Neill has given us a window into Mary’s subconscious with her suspicion of not being trusted, deep shame, and eventual disappearance into drugged somnambulism.  Along with the believable gnarled hands and regal bearing, Anderman gives us a fully fleshed and real character that astounds with its perfection. She has complete command of every aspect of Mary’s persona.
Michael Stewart Allen, John Leonard Thompson, Dennis Creaghan, Maureen Anderman

Mary had her dreams too.  Before meeting her husband, she was in a convent school and had thoughts of being a concert pianist or even a nun.  She was swept off her feet by James but increasingly her life became one of a secondary player to James, accompanying him while he was on the road which was most of the time.  The only “home” she has known is their summer residence on the sea.  And it is a permanent “home” she has longed for.  “In a real home one is never lonely,” she says to James, reminding him that she gave up such a home – her father’s – to marry him. “I knew from experience by then that children should have homes to be born in, if they are to be good children, and women need homes.”  Also in the context of “home,” she acknowledges that the men in her family have “barrooms where they feel at home.”

Her life as an appendage to James is bad enough.  But O’Neill drills down further into her heartache where the rarely mentioned sorrow of their deceased child, notably named Eugene, resides.  Eugene would have been the middle son had he not died when he was two, exposed to the disease by the older son, Jamie, before the youngest son, Edmund, was born. Thus Mary’s accusation: “Oh, I know Jamie was only seven, but he was never stupid. He’d been warned it might kill the baby.  He knew.  I’ve never been able to forgive him for that.”

Following Edmund’s birth (which she perceived as a duty to her husband, following the death of Eugene) and Mary’s increasing feeling of isolation and blame, she turns to morphine as her chosen remorse-killer to which she becomes addicted for the rest of her life.

John Leonard Thompson, Michael Stewart Allen
She worries about the health of her younger son, Edmund, and although she is in constant denial about the seriousness of his condition, he is finally diagnosed with tuberculosis.  Edmund is played by a new Dramaworks face, Michael Stewart Allen, an experienced Shakespearian actor.  Edmund is O’Neill’s alter ego and much of the playwright’s tortured and poetic observations are expressed through him.  Allen’s portrayal of Edmund’s drunken conversation with his father in Act IV is passionate and his final confrontation with his brother reveals a physical side which takes the audience by surprise.  He is there to be pitied by the family, always a source of their guilt, and, yet, if anyone is “the sanest” in the family, Allen brings that out.

Jamie or James Jr. is played by another Dramaworks pro, John Leonard Thompson.  Here is yet an additional dynamic for the family’s dysfunctional gristmill: the failed older son who holds on to his “infinite sorrow of life.” He is his father’s greatest disappointment.  Jamie’s cynicism is his protection from the truth but when drunk (which is most of the time) his love-hate relationship with Edmund comes to the surface, jealous of his younger brother on the one hand and loving on the other. "You're all I've got left" he drunkenly confesses. Nonetheless he has introduced his younger brother to the same debauchery in which he has indulged; bars and prostitutes. Thompson’s portrayal of Jamie’s antagonism gathers momentum to the final drunken confrontation with his brother in the last scenes.  It is a physically exhausting performance and, as I think O’Neill intended, one does feel pity and fear for the tragedy of being the first born in the Tyrone family.  John Leonard Thompson, who has excelled in so many Dramaworks productions, will be remembered for this extraordinary portrayal of so many conflicting emotions.

Maureen Anderman, Carey Urban
Carey Urban, making her debut at Dramaworks, is Cathleen, a household servant, the only non-family member in the play.  Although a minor character, she plays an important role, briefly imbibing with Mary, waiting for the men to return home, expressing rage at the druggist in filling Mary’s morphine prescription (which Mary insists is for “rheumatism”).  Urban provides what little comic relief there is in the play with aplomb.

And as the home is by the sea, there are numerous references to the fog.  It is both a source of comfort and of sadness. It is a porous curtain into the past.  Mary wonders “why is it fog makes everything sound so sad and lost?”  Edmund, the younger son laments “Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it?” It is a symbolic reminder of the kind of fog hanging in their lives, alcohol for the Tyrone men and the opiate for Mary to diminish the pain of their past histories.  The fog actually enters the home in the last act, seemingly seeking out Mary in her final Ophelia-like scene.

Accusations and regret make up the “action.” The Tyrones have to exhume the past to deal with the present and lie (to themselves as well as to each other) to exculpate their guilt.  It is simply a masterpiece of painful writing and brilliant performances. The dark and personal content challenges the directors and the actors every step in the development and its execution.  Performing Long Day’s Journey has to take its toll day in and day out.  It is emotionally exhausting.

We were fortunate to be able to briefly attend one of the rehearsals a couple of weeks before the opening.  It was the “tech week” where Dramaworks blends all the technical elements, lighting and sound while choreographing the blocking and movement of the actors.  We saw two brief scenes from Act I and Act IV, one between James Sr. (Dennis Creaghan) and James Jr. (John Leonard Thompson) and the other between James Sr. and Edmund (Michael Stewart Allen). 

At times Director Bill Hayes and Assistant Director Paul Stancato (they worked as a team on this production) stopped the action, discussing their concerns with the actors and the actors making some counter arguments.  There must be hundreds of such tiny tweaking moments, the invisible hands of the director to help make the scenes authentic and dramatic.  It is a process of trust, starting with casting, the director having to trust the actors for such a collaboratory effort, this trust ultimately extending to the audience. Bill Hayes felt the Dramaworks’ audience -- as well as the theatre’s production team -- was ready for such a journey.  Both Hayes and Stancato (who will direct a future Dramaworks production, solo, next season) successfully merge the symbolic and literary elements of the play.  And the play does read like a novel, O’Neill providing extensive, descriptive stage directions which must be interpreted by the director.

The technicians behind the actors and the director are top notch.  Scenic design is by K. April Soroko, and lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas.  The lighting evolves as morning passes into the afternoon, to twilight and finally to midnight connoting the dark denouement. Even the lighting of John Singer Sargent’s paintings was studied to capture the time period and mood.  At the conclusion of Act II, a dramatic bright white spotlight shines on Mary, dressed in white, as “she gives a little despairing laugh” [stage directions] saying, “Then Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?”  The spotlight fades and cuts to darkness.  Intermission.

The relatively shallow stage of Dramaworks’ theater is compensated by its breadth. There is an upstairs and an outside where the fog comes and goes.  It is a sea-side home of some substance by 1912 standards, wood-paneled, a book case, framed pictures of Shakespeare, and another of a Monte Cristo 19th century playbill, the play which made O’Neill’s father rich playing the role more than 6,000 times.  Costume design is by Brian O'Keefe with his usual careful attention to period dress.  Sound design is by Matt Corey and along with the fog, there is the obligatory fog horn, timed to sound at some of the most dramatic moments.

A final tip of the hat to James Danford, the Stage Manager, a tireless role, the man who attends to the scores and scores of details on stage, right down to the levels of the liquid in the liquor bottles (many of which are gone through during the production).  Danford is in his fourth season at Dramaworks, an enthusiastic pro in every way.

In short, if you are ready to see the greatest American play, and perhaps one of its best productions, take a journey with the Tyrone family and strap on your seat belt at Dramaworks.