By Patrick Hurley
In today’s fast paced theatrical world, where ninety-minute plays are all the rage, there is something immensely pleasurable in the investment of the three-and-a-half hour slow burn that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s loquacious masterpiece, playing now at the Geffen Playhouse.
The play, which originally premiered in 1956, deals with one day in the life of the Tyrone family, a brooding and remorseful set of individuals who have come to that crossroads in life where neither direction leads to much hope. In true O’Neill fashion, the play offers a view of the world that is shrouded in fog, and filled with bitter disappointments. The Tyrone clan, led by Patriarch James (Alfred Molina), is a catalyst for the American dream that belies us all.
James and Mary (Jane Kaczmarek) have two sons, Edmund (Colin Woodell) and Jamie (Stephen Louis Grush). Mary is addicted to morphine, and Edmund has consumption. Two facts that burden the idyllic dreams of a family whose best years lie far behind them. After being on the wagon for some time, Mary has started back on the drugs, and walks around in the first two acts in a state of slight paranoia that her secret will be discovered. Of course, the three men suspect it all along because of her behavior and they stand in judgment of her as they imbibe bottles of whisky and slip slowly into drunkenness, and wax melancholy in true Irish fashion.
Scene after scene we watch all four of these individuals succumb to regret, to the realization that the illusion of their lives is that they held on too long to the illusions of their lives. We see the deep pain that reality doesn’t align with their dreams, and the losses they’ve suffered have left too deep a wound than can be reconciled. Addiction and disease are used as symbols for the dire truth of modernity, of progressing into a darkened future where the terrain in so filled with fog, one can barely see their own hand in front of their face. It’s a slow move into the opaque unknown, and for the Tyrone’s it’s a grasping onto the past that keeps them stuck in this long day, where the relief of night is not coming.
Standing as a pillar of American drama, perhaps one of the most influential and substantive plays written in the twentieth century, it is a poetic masterpiece. O’Neill, at the height of his linguistic powers, created a stunning epic of words, motif, and symbol that still resounds today. Even with the valid argument that there are more words employed than necessary, it has, like Shakespeare, metaphor that drips like honey, extracting the sweetness of life as we dream it used to be, from the bitterness of what it actually is.
This production only falters briefly when it stands in the way of the text. The projections that precede each act slow the action and don’t make enough sense to warrant them. The heavy-handed music, meant to evoke, only bloats the tone to near melodrama in places. There is no need to heighten the tone of this play by creating an even more morose mood. In fact, this works against the play. Director, Jeanie Hackett shows her hand too soon. She is playing the ending up front, and this causes Ms. Kaczmarek’s performance, which is ultimately very good, to be uneven at the start. She is clearly headed toward her conclusion, but it sometimes works in contrast to the dialogue in the first half. It’s simply that the director should have let the actress get there, rather than start there, pull her back, and then get her there again.
The trio of men in the play all give stellar performances, particularly the two younger actors. Alfred Molina is of course just perfectly cast as James. He infuses every moment with authenticity. His honesty is weighted with such authority as to make him utterly and eternally watchable, and we can’t help but be drawn into his story. As Jamie, Stephen Louis Grush nails the desperation and endearingly makes Jamie as unlikeable as he is relatable. He never plays up Jamie’s victimization, but rather wears his defiance like a badge of honor.
Likewise, Colin Woodell plays Edmund less as a victim and more empowered by his choices. His performance is effective and strong, but doesn’t quite get a satisfying landing at the end, because the production allows Edmund’s realization at the end to sink behind the showcase of Mary’s mad scene. Rather than a dance between reality and illusion, it succumbs to the melodramatic choice of illusion and the reality is lost.
One more great strength of this production is the wonderfully open scenic design by Tom Buderwitz. Capturing a nostalgia and theatricality that keeps the piece contained, closed in, and yet somehow wide open. Even with it’s issues, this production is highly successful in bringing a classic work to the stage. And for all it’s attempts to create a modern spin– with projections, even the inclusion of photos of Eugene O’Neill, one can assume to include the great master as a sort of overseeing narrator of the piece, the production soars highest when it gets out of the way and let’s the text and the actors hold together the beauty of O’Neill’s sobering and sullen prose with no strings attached. No tricks are needed with material like this, and for the most part it’s a true adaptation of a true classic.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Jeanie Hackett
Jan. 31- March 18 2017
Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Tickets are currently priced from $43 to $84 for the regular run (Sept 14 – Oct 16), and are available online at www.geffenplayhouse.org, via phone at 310.208.5454, or in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office. Based on seat availability, rush tickets may be available onsite 30 minutes prior to show time. Rush tickets are priced at $35 for general admission and $10 for students, with a valid student I.D.