When British novelist Evelyn Waugh caught the first London production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he described it as “an intolerable Irish-American play about a family being drunk and rude to one another in half-darkness.” Sounds like your typical Thanksgiving dinner to me.
In any case, what Waugh’s dismissive assessment of the 20th century’s most powerful American drama gets right is that the play is unquestionably an ordeal—and not just because it lasts three and a half hours and the characters can’t stop talking. As few but the Greeks had done before him, O’Neill conveys an almost unbearable sense of family as tragic destiny.
Through the four Tyrones we see how parents, offspring, siblings, and spouses can warp, suffocate, enable, and destroy one another, in spite of love and good intentions. The family seems as doomed as the house of Atreus, only the curse that hangs over them is the past, and there’s no fixing that. And so a horrible inevitability prevents any chance of hope or escape.
It’s a lot like watching creatures caught in a trap, even if the trap resembles the living room of a drab summer home in coastal New England, circa 1912. In David Auburn’s harrowing and heartrending production at Court Theatre, Jack Magaw’s set design is a dead ringer for the place O’Neill had in mind when he finished the play in 1941: Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut, where his own family spent the summers during the playwright’s unhappy youth.
The home is open to the public nowadays. Last summer, as a matter of fact, I took the tour, following an incongruously cheerful guide as she rattled off her spiel about the building’s history as a habitat for addiction and limitless sadness. O’Neill’s lengthy stage directions paint a surprisingly accurate picture of the first floor, right down to the placement of windows and light fixtures. Magaw follows those specs pretty closely, maybe because his director, Auburn, is a playwright too (best known for Proof, another drama about a troubled family), and therefore inclined to let the author have his way.
O’Neill’s careful verisimilitude when it comes to the setting corresponds to the searing honesty in his depiction of the characters, who bear more than a passing resemblance to the members of his immediate family. In the play’s inscription, he calls it a work of “old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” The deeply personal nature of the story certainly accounts for the pain that radiates from it, though the domestic drama is transmuted into something shattering and monumental by O’Neill’s feverish and uniquely tragic vision.
The author’s stand-in is Edmund (Michael Doonan), a brooding would-be writer with twin cases of wanderlust and consumption. He’s loved and hated in equal measure by his older brother, Jamie, an alcoholic played here by Dan Waller, who gives by far the production’s most visceral performance, particularly in the play’s fourth and final act. Returning from a night of carousing, he sets off on a raw, emotionally violent rant that Waller imbues with a kind of self-loathing fury.
The brothers’ father, James Tyrone, was once a promising actor and matinee idol who gave up any chance of artistic development when he found popular success in a mediocre swashbuckling role and decided to keep playing it over and over for easy money. His terror of returning to the poverty he’s clawed his way out of has wasted his talent and turned him into a miser. Harris Yulin plays him with the clear, slightly lilting voice of an off-duty ham, but he’s often too withdrawn for us to see the terror driving his stinginess, and he never supplies a ferocity to match his chief sparring partner, Waller’s Jamie.
What unites the three men is their despair over the central action of the play—the daylong slide of the family’s matriarch, Mary, back into the grip of a morphine addiction they thought she had kicked. But concern over Edmund’s health and the power of the drug eventually overtake her, until by the end of the night she’s like a ghost, haunting the others with joyless reminders of the distant past.
Mary Beth Fisher doesn’t strike me as an obvious fit for the role. Her talents for communicating common sense and righteous albeit withering anger seem at odds with a character prone to panic when she’s not high and elaborate, romanticized reminiscence when she is. But it turns out Fisher’s natural, grounded quality helps keep her from drifting too far into either hysteria or glassy-eyed torpor. Her Mary is mercurial and intelligent, with flashes of mordant wit, keen insight, and gut-wrenching sorrow. v