Inn Town Theatre Company

at Prop Theater

Loss of faith–Christian faith specifically, but faith in life generally–is the obsession that underlies Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But O’Neill, himself a lapsed Catholic, couldn’t shake the heritage of the religion he was raised in; Long Day’s Journey is a steady stream of confession, with the audience in the role of the priest who must give solace to the sinner.

And what a litany of sorrows O’Neill confesses on behalf of himself and his family. Alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, miserliness, blasphemy, even hints of suicide and murder. Drawing from his own life, O’Neill wrote Long Day’s Journey between 1940 and 1944, “in tears and blood . . . with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness” (as he said in his note dedicating the play to his wife). Fueled by booze and despair, the characters in this play–based on O’Neill’s parents and older brother–lash out at each other and themselves, baring the sickness in their souls through accusation and apology, denial and denunciation. The father, James Tyrone, an aging ex-actor who squandered his talent to become a matinee idol, lacerates himself for the failure of his family; the mother, Mary, addicted to morphine since giving painful birth to the younger son, Edmund, prays in vain for an end to loneliness and the return of innocence; Jamie, the older son, a cynical drunk embittered by the tragedy of his mother’s addiction, lashes out at the world and takes pleasure in corrupting his younger brother (having in childhood killed–perhaps willfully–another brother by exposing the infant to measles). And Edmund–O’Neill’s surrogate self–watches the world around him in wonder and horror, self-destructively exacerbating a case of consumption by reckless drinking.

In these personal tragedies, O’Neill found a universal metaphor; the family members in Long Day’s Journey wait for a salvation they don’t believe will ever come. Most of the ills discussed in the play no longer convey the terror they would have in 1912, when the play takes place; our medical and psychological insights into drug addiction and alcoholism and sexuality would have gone a long way to easing the pain of the Tyrone clan. (Mary’s introduction to morphine by an incompetent physician would be the basis for a first-class malpractice suit in this age of litigation.) But the spiritual malaise these characters feel is still, and probably always will be, all too identifiable, and Long Day’s Journey remains an enduring and moving classic in our literature.

Lizabeth Sipes, director of the Inn Town Theatre Company’s current production, is noted for her work with plays about male relationships–specifically Inn Town’s previous stagings of David Rabe’s Streamers and David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Like those plays, Long Day’s Journey explores the emotional dynamics among a group of men facing a common problem (here, anguish over mother Mary’s resurgent dope dependency). But unlike the terse tension in Rabe’s and Mamet’s writing, O’Neill draws his power from the garrulous gift of gab that was his legacy as an Irish-American and the son of a Shakespearean actor. Long Day’s journey is filled with operatic monologues and drawn-out dialogues in which the characters express everything a Mamet would imply.

Such relentless verbosity, so out of fashion today, requires actors of enormous verbal gifts; unfortunately Sipes lacks such a cast. The actors are capable enough in creating their characterizations, but their performances–and thus this production–lack the tragic stature required to make the play not just a sad story but a journey into the human heart of darkness.

Perhaps because age brings with it experience, the best performances come from the senior members of the cast (reduced from five to four people, because Sipes has trimmed about 40 minutes from the play by eliminating the role of the serving girl Cathleen). Everett F. Smith, a familiar face in community theater here, is appropriately forceful but dissipated as James Tyrone, forced by his family’s fecklessness to face his own failings. Mary Ann Flynn, a newcomer to the local stage, is quite moving as Mary, fighting arthritic hands and the tortures of addiction, and finally retreating into a drug-induced dream world of nostalgia.

As the older brother, Jamie, Ken Beider conveys inner conflict but lacks the maturity to make this wastrel the tragic figure O’Neill saw him as; Beider might have done better as young Edmund, who is inadequately played by Scott McWilliams. Neither Beider nor McWilliams is equipped to grapple with O’Neill’s language–a common enough failing among young actors, but no less bothersome for being widespread.

Despite its shortcomings, this is a production of integrity and commitment. If it offers nothing particularly new (except, thanks to Sipes’s editing, a way to stage O’Neill’s four-act drama in two and a half hours), it is by no means a failure either. Sipes’s dramatic pacing shows sensitivity to the musical way O’Neill structures his overlapping dialogue, like mournful counterpoint in a string quartet. And there is the power of honesty here–the honesty of a playwright determined to strip his soul bare.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Linn Ehrlich.