note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
In over three hours, New Repertory Theatre travels back in time to one day in 1912, in New London, Conn., when esteemed playwright Eugene O’Neill unmasks the decadent, sordid tragedy of his and his family’s lives in his masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. Although the play is long, Director Scott Edmiston has gathered a superlative cast and crew that intensifies every moment on stage. O’Neill himself would have been proud.
A prolific writer, O’Neill penned many plays, but this autobiographical treasure earned him his fourth Pulitzer Prize. In “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” O’Neill demanded the play not be released until several years after his death in 1953, because it was too autobiographically revealing and shocking, based on actual familial events in 1912. However, the play was released and performed in 1956.
He also sneaks in references to his other famous plays, including anecdotes from “Moon for the Misbegotten,” which contains crossover biographical incidents.
Thinly masking the family’s identity, O’Neill used a family name, Tyrone in lieu of O’Neill, and exchanged roles with his real brother, Edmund --- who actually was the middle child and died at 18 months of the measles. Edmund (who is actually Eugene) is the youngest brother, and is very ill, with consumption (tuberculosis). After traveling and landing a job at the local newspaper, Edmund, an alcoholic, finds solace in New London’s engulfing seaside, fog and blaring foghorn (nicely provided by sound designer Dewey Dellay). He’s ill- very ill- and he knows it. He attempted suicide earlier that year, he says. As the fragile Edmund, Nicholas Dillenburg is passive, low-key, perhaps too submissive and not consumptive enough to evoke sympathy, especially since his illness is a focusing tool for this stormy family. They all are self-destructive.
Edmund’s eldest brother, James Jr., 34; his dad, James Sr.; and mother, Mary Cavan Tyrone, (nee´ Ella Quinlan O’Neill) resemble tormented Shakespearean characters.
Like Lady MacBeth, Mary, a devout but wavering Catholic, struts and frets on stage, wringing her hands, despairing her lost youth and beauty. She fusses over her husband of 35 years and sons, while cursing James Sr. for her uprooted, vagabond, unhappy life, traveling on second-rate trains and living in cheap hotels. Mary’s emotional highs and lows are triggered and fogged by her addiction to morphine and whiskey, which, in turn, anguishes the family. She hates the isolationism and shabbiness of the summer cottage, she cries. She’s lonely. She misses community involvement and having friends. She’s also in denial of Edmund’s illness.
Like an overplayed record stuck in its groove, Mary regrets leaving her convent school and midwestern home to marry the famous, dashing, handsome matinee idol, she says. She’s angry that while James portrayed the Count of Monte Cristo on Broadway and on tour, her sons were born in hotel rooms, delivered by a “cheap,” incompetent doctor. After her difficult delivery with Edmund, the “quack” doctor gave her morphine to dull her pain. causing her addiction and institutionalization at sanitariums.
She loves and admires James, but she abhors his stinginess. Although they spend summers in a cottage in New London, Conn., instead of buying a home and establishing roots, James buys investment property, arguing that land and property are worth more than money. His judgment is overshadowed by his family’s abject poverty and his father’s abandonment and death.
The Tyrones don’t look second-rate in ’Charles Schoonmaker’s handsome period costumes. At times, they’re elegant.
Incomparable actress Karen MacDonald as Mary is riveting as she wavers between her descent into insanity and addiction, while frantically trying to enjoy being with her sons and adoring husband. Her hands and body quiver, shake. She fusses about her white hair and aging hands. a subterfuge over her fear that Edmund may die. She knows James will seek the cheapest medical care for Edmund, and she berates him for that.
As Mary’s moods shift like an out-of-control elevator, James’ calm demeanor is shaken, and James Jr. is caustic. Accomplished actor Will Lyman as James Sr. adds a quiet dignity to James Jr. during touching scenes with Mary and stormy scenes with James Jr.
Lewis D. Wheeler, son of deceased Boston theater icon David Wheeler, is electrifying, especially during his closing speech to Edmund, when he reveals his love-hate, protective-vengeful relationship with him.
Although “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is depressing, Melissa Baroni as housemaid Cathleen, (who doesn’t mind a spot or touch of the drink, here and there, she says) brightens its dismal tone with comic relief. She chatters away about the demanding, supervisory cook, and the family driver, Smythe, hired to drive the Tyrones’ second-hand Packard, and how he doesn’t keep his hands to himself.
Janie E. Howland’s handsome, two-story set has a ghostly eeriness, as Mary walks through the house, her opaque, shadowy form and hands casting a suffocating pall.
We know this long journey into the night ends in darkness, filled with simmering sound and fury, and tragedy.
BOX INFO: Two-act, three-hour+ drama, written by Eugene O’Neill, appearing with New Repertory Theatre,now through April 22, at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theatre, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Performances are April 11,12,19, at 7:30 p.m.; April 13,20, at 8 p.m.; April 14,21, at 3,8 p.m; April 15,22, at 2 p.m. with talkback. Tickets:$28-$58; seniors, $7 discount; student rush, $20. Call 617-923-8487 or visit www.newrep.org.