Actors Theatre Opens O’Neill Masterpiece

Actors Theatre of Louisville opens Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning family and addiction drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” Thursday in the Pamela Brown Auditorium. Directed by artistic director Les Waters, the production runs through October 28.

Waters directed at Actors Theatre previous to his artistic director appointment (Charles Mee’s “Big Love,” 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays; Naomi Iizuka’s “At the Vanishing Point,” 2004 Humana Festival). This season, he will also direct “Girlfriend,” a musical homage to the pop music of Matthew Sweet that opens in January, and Will Eno’s new play “Gnit” in the upcoming Humana Festival.

“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a semi-autobiographical play about a family much like the playwright’s own—famous actor (and alcoholic) patriarch James Tyrone spends one long, recriminating day with his sickly younger son Edmund (based on O’Neill), eldest son Jamie, also an actor, and their bitter mother Mary, as they all struggle to reconcile past mistakes and learn how to forgive as well as forget.

In the script’s dedication to his wife Carlotta, O’Neill wrote the play is one “of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” O’Neill planned for the play to stay un-produced and even unpublished for 25 years after his death. But after his death in 1953, Carlotta transferred the rights to Yale University, which published the first edition just three years later.

“It’s one of the great plays of American theater,” says Waters. “It’s a very honest, sometimes funny, grueling look at one’s own dysfunctional family, what had happened to them and how they struggled to come to terms with things.”

O’Neill was one of the first American stage masters of realism, infusing his scripts with relatively common speech (though his famously poetic stage directions have sparked their own theatrical spin-off, the Neo-Futurists’ “The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O’Neill, Volume 1″) and unflinching portrayals of society’s fringe, including prostitutes and alcoholics. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is considered his masterpiece. 

As “Long Day’s Journey” begins, Mary is recently home from rehabilitation for her long-term morphine addiction, trying to regain a sense of normalcy as the men watch her for signs of relapse, while drinking heavily themselves.

“I think what makes the play brilliant is O’Neill’s big, big heart, in the end, about his family,” says Waters.  ”During the course of this long day, the family begins to move from avoidance and denial and evading each other to actually talking about what the situation is.”

The setting is a country cottage resembling Monte Cristo, the Connecticut house O’Neill’s father bought with the considerable income he made playing the lead role in the melodrama “The Count of Monte Cristo” more than 5,000 times. Waters says the fact that the Tyrones are a theater family captured his attention.

“My wife is a set and costume designer, my kids have been brought up around people in the theater,” he says. “Over my career I have known a few people who are children of famous actors but are also in the theater business themselves, and being very interested in what that is like, if you’re the child of a famous parent.”

O’Neill describes the interior of the cottage in great detail in his script, but in his production, Waters has pared the stage down. In a nod to the Tyrone family profession, the actors will stay on the sidelines, in sight of the audience, while off-stage.

“I’ve spent hours—years—of my life in a rehearsal room, where actors will walk off stage and sit at the side and wait for their next scene. I’ve become very intrigued by that,” says Waters. “It is a play about people in the theater, and I wanted to incorporate what we go through in a rehearsal room into an actual performance.”

Tyrone’s sons and wife resent him and the rootless lifestyle they lived, even as it provided a livelihood and considerable education for the sons.  But there are resentments enough to go around in the Tyrone summer house—for Mary, as her sons still reel from childhood emotional neglect, and for Jamie, whom Mary blames for a family tragedy that occurred when he was a small child. In many ways, the Tyrones live in the past, re-living and re-casting blame as a way of avoiding the tragedies of the present.

“I think one of the things the play is dealing with is can you escape the past? Is that in fact possible?” says Waters. “Mary says at one point in reply to something the husband has said, ‘I can forgive but I can’t forget.’ The word ‘remember’ occurs hundreds of times in the play, often starting out very positively, but it usually slides into some kind of accusation.

In his foreword to the latest edition of the play, critic Harold Bloom calls O’Neill “the elegist of the Freudian ‘family romance,’ of the domestic tragedy of which we all die daily, a little bit at a time.” But Waters sees hope for the Tyrones.

“I was listening to a scene the other day and thought, ‘if this was me I would walk and never come back.’ But these characters don’t,” he says. “All families say appalling things to each other, really devastating things, but these characters say the devastating thing and then say, you know, but I do love you. They stick together. They help each other through it.”

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