A work of great artistic merit is often measured by its ability to stand the test and rigors of time. What was pertinent then should be all the more appropriate today, and suffice it to say, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is one of those works that has become even more familiar to us over the years.
Having won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1956, in addition to the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year, the play focuses on a loving, but dysfunctional, family in 1912 at their New England, Connecticut seaside home. Over the course of fifteen-and-a-half hours between 8:30 a.m. and 12:00 midnight, we are granted the very private glimpse of a long-time married couple and their two older sons, whose past and future are brought to bear with a discretely palpable intensity, held together by only the yarn of their mutual affection.
The Geffen Playhouse production of this classic play, which can be seen at the premises’ Gil Cates Theater until March 18th, is paced and punctuated with dramatic bursts and poignant ebbs throughout the four acts by its esteemed director, Jeanie Hackett. Starring Hollywood luminaries Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek (as James and Mary Cavan Tyrone), in addition to the talented Stephen Louis Grush (James “Jamie” Tyrone, Jr.), Colin Woodell (Edmund Tyrone), and Angela Goethals (Cathleen, the serving-maid), it’s not difficult to understand why the performances complement each other as well as they do on the unassuming stage.
The impetus that drives the story, and motivates the characters’ actions, is two-pronged: Mary Cavan Tyrone’s morphine dependency and her son Edmund’s worsening illness (pulmonary tuberculosis). Furthermore, what makes the plot even more harrowing to watch unfold is the fact that these two factors interrelate; that is, Mary’s father died of the same disease that threatens to take away her youngest son, which is extraordinarily too much for Mary to bear because she had previously lost a baby (Eugene) to measles before Edmund was born.
As Mary, Kaczmarek depicts an astounding transformation, as a mother who initially looks her best, with her hair beautifully put up, with a charming demeanor to boot, to one who becomes disheveled and unraveled with each passing act, even as her family is vigilantly aware. Kaczmarek speaks her lines with a guarded heartbreak that cannot stay hidden under her character’s good-hearted guise to get better. As the last scene shows, Mary is a woman ravaged by not only her rheumatism, but the torment of a long-gone past, when she retraces, with a marker of self-condemnation, the trajectory of her life 36 years prior before she was married to James Tyrone. In her reminiscence, Mary dejectedly ponders why she didn’t just stay in the convent and/or realize her potential as a concert pianist.
Colin Woodell, at only 25 years old, fills the role of Edmund with a graceful courage and weather-beaten vulnerability. In the face of likely death due to consumption, Edmund, who, despite his discordant cough – which ricochets through his diaphragm and the rest of the theater (which Woodell pulls off astonishingly well) – exhibits a quiet dignity about his destiny. Edmund is introspective, with a love of the sea, and a fascination with death – the latter of which manifests in his morbid love of authors (e.g., Nietzsche) who question the nature of existence. Most importantly, Edmund is the more affable and honorable brother – and Woodell does a remarkable job of earning the observer’s respect in his interactions with his persona’s mother, brother, and especially father during Act IV, when he describes with wonderful diction the solemn impact his sea-faring adventures had on him.
Moreover, Stephen Louis Grush inhabits the character of James “Jamie” Tyrone, Jr. with a power-keg-like sensibility and intensity that commands the stage. Certainly, a reason for this is the manner in which Grush, who walks very upright with a calculating purpose, effectively plays Jamie with a specious bravado. In other words, Jamie’s rancorous rage is like a varnish to mislead people from the fact that, despite being an actor by trade, he is emotionally at the behest of alcohol, prostitutes, and even his own insecurities. Jamie is spiritually accursed, much more so than his mother, and in one of the final scenes when Grush takes on qualities of both benevolence and diabolicalness with respect to his character’s brother, we are riveted and left gasping in awe.
As the patriarch of his family, James Tyrone, Alfred Molina is worthy of tremendous respect for his effortless-seeming naturalistic acting. The 63-year-old veteran is emboldened by an impressive calmness and sovereignty over his acting choices as it pertains to his character Tyrone – a former stage star who later accrues several properties. Tyrone is an upstanding man, in spite of the events that have surrounded him, for nobody can doubt that he has given his family so much after being forced to have the accountability of an adult from the age of 10. Be that as it may, like Mary, Jamie, and even Edmund at times, he is an inveterate drinker, which is pointed out with the recurring joke that Tyrone’s eagle eye always remembers the alcohol level in the decanter. But, Tyrone’s biggest weakness is for being miserly, even in the case of his own family, as in when he first decides to send Edmund to a cheaper, state-run sanitarium. This point of contention bubbles up with an enthralling pathos when we learn why, via Molina, that Tyrone is so adamant about never returning to the “poor house.”
Last but not least is Cathleen, portrayed by the skilled Angela Goethals, who, as the maid, metaphorically represents the audience by being simultaneously removed from the proceedings, but also invested. Wanting to make sure the Tyrones are well taken care of, Cathleen commiserates with them, and even becomes inebriated as the others do. In fact, Goethals’ great delivery of the line when Tyrone notes her stupor — “If I’ve a drop taken, I didn’t steal it. I was invited” — makes for a memorable moment in the play for provoking the very much needed levity that it does.
Overall, the Geffen Playhouse production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is highly recommended for its captivating delineation of a family of four who fundamentally need the fellowship and support of each other to survive their own personal trials and regrets. The play, which is magnificently acted and directed, ultimately succeeds by drawing attention to the importance of communication. The Tyrone family is one that seemingly hadn’t talked on a deep level for some time, and it is throughout the duration of one day that they come into conflict; however, they also reveal their true selves to one another in some ways for the very first time in a collective catharsis of sorts. Indeed, this day marks the chaos before their peace, when the fog of the past clears a path toward a healing future.
For more information on showtimes and tickets for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Geffen Playhouse, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/long-days-journey-into-night