Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new artistic director Les Waters put his acclaimed directorial chops on full display in last night’s opening of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical dysfunctional family and addiction drama “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Powerhouse acting and economical staging allow the family Tyrone to reveal themselves wholly and sympathetically over the course of the long but rewarding production.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” opened Thursday and runs through October 28 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium.
The play takes place over one long day in 1912, set in patriarch James Tyrone’s summer cottage, modeled on Monte Cristo, O’Neill’s family house in New London, Connecticut. The story deals with the intimate tragedies of O’Neill’s own family through a lightly fictionalized lens―mother Mary’s morphine addiction, brother Jamie’s fatal alcoholism, father Tyrone’s bitterness over a sell-out acting career that stunted his artistic growth, as well as Edmund’s (the playwright’s stand-in) own struggles against the family traditions of alcoholism and self-sabotage.
It’s a remarkably brave script that tackles a family’s deep resentments and failures head-on, perhaps because O’Neill never meant for it to be staged. Thankfully, his wishes were not honored after his death, leaving the American theater with one of its most honest and unflinching portrayals of a damaged family. The play earned O’Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is rightfully considered a masterpiece, and so it is read and studied frequently in literature and theater classes, but infrequently staged live in full professional production. That’s understandable―it’s a gorilla of a play (Waters’ trimmed version, which removes servant Cathleen’s scenes to focus solely on the Tyrone family, still clocks in at more than three hours) that demands a great deal of physical and emotional stamina from its cast.
And while there are plenty of moments of levity, the Tyrones are a difficult family to watch so closely―they love each other fiercely yet disappoint each other at every turn, and throughout the play they mine the unhappy past for an explanation of (or blame for) their miserable present. What the play renders so masterfully is how slippery such explanations can be, deftly avoiding easy answers. When Edmund says to his father, “we don’t seem to be able to avoid unpleasant topics,” it is perhaps the understatement of the young century, and so the play places great emotional demands on the audience as well―love these characters, even in their ugly moments, even if you see yourself or your close family in some of their actions or motivations.
Thankfully, Waters’ production levies great emotional rewards on those who stick it through. It’s one thing to read a play on the page, but seeing it brought to life in a successful, empathetic production is an entirely deeper experience, like seeing a great painting in person rather than in textbook reproduction. Every brushstroke is brought to life.
Antje Ellermann’s platform set juts the Pamela Brown stage out nearly into the front row, creating a more intimate space than the stage usually allows, while projecting the gray New England coastline behind a roll of fog that announces the top of each act, backed by sound designer Richard Woodbury’s desolate foghorn. Don’t miss veteran Actors Theatre costume designer Lorraine Venberg’s lobby display that explains, among other things, why Mary’s sleeves are slightly longer than might have been the fashion.
On opening night, the cast didn’t seem to hit their stride until midway through the first act, stumbling at times over O’Neill’s dialog, but once they did, they worked the playwright’s masterful sense of tension and timing to the hilt. As father James Tyrone, David Chandler vacillates wildly between a grandiose sense of humor and theatricality and a wild, barely controlled fear for his fragile wife and lost sons. John Brummer infuses the underperforming, sickly Edmund (the playwright’s stand-in can be a somewhat passive character) with a simmering anger, while Michael Bakkensen’s cynical wise-guy Jamie is a delight to watch in his (relatively) sober first act and a gripping open wound by the end of the second.
As Mary, the woman around which the Tyrone men revolve, Lisa Emery offers a delicate powerhouse of a performance that reveals in tissue-fine layers the lively romantic Mary once was and how she lost herself and her family. For Mary in the clutches of morphine, the shimmering curtain between the past and the present finally rips, and she slips into “the mad ghost” of O’Neill’s tragic denouement, becoming that curious, theatrical thing of beauty and horror.
Waters has said that his first season as artistic director is governed by a theme of love. Going from Shakespeare’s seminal tragic romance of “Romeo and Juliet” to O’Neill’s drunken family epic of loss and forgiveness certainly starts a conversation about all the ways in which the theme can manifest itself in art and on stage. Next up is “True West” by Sam Shepard, a playwright who draws a direct line from O’Neill to his own work, promising that the conversation will remain engaging, with lively revelations on the subject yet to come.