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BWW Reviews: Theatre Works Showcases O'Neill

Nothing seems to scare the valiant little troupe Threepenny Theatre Company. What has it got to lose? So what if the budget allows for no more than a perfunctory set? So what if its selection of classics (i.e., MACBETH) hardly has the appeal of a crowd-pleasing musical? Relying on a commitment to quality of writing and performance, it has pulled off a real coup: A stunning production of Eugene O'Neill's warhorse of a classic, the autobiographical LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, produced posthumously and, in 1962, given classic cinema status by Director Sidney Lumet and brilliant performers Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn, Dean Stockwell, and Jason Robards, Jr. (to whom O'Neill was as essential as Tennessee Williams was to Elizabeth Taylor). This particular warhorse, however, is of the Trojan variety, and Director Matt Crewse has tamed the beast with the aid of four performances that are nothing short of brilliant.

While nearby Playhouse on the Square has been extolling the senses with its recent production of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (star Jerre Dye would have been a great "James Tyrone, Jr." - I wrote as much a couple of years ago), Theatre Works' LONG DAY'S is equally exciting - but in a different way. First of all, this is the first time that the nearly four-hour production has been staged in Memphis since the 1970's. That's not the fate of writers such as Arthur Miller (with his social concerns) and Tennessee Williams (with his "drag queen" female monsters); their works are shorter, less demanding on the watch fob. That being stated, this production proves riveting within minutes. Moreover, Miller and Williams both came to mind as I studied the interrelationships of the characters.

When the patriarch of the family deplores the lack of success of a once promising son, the "Willy/Biff" dynamic in Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN becomes apparent; and when the drug-addicted mother glosses over the ugliness of reality, she summons the image of "Blanche" in Williams' STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. Yet, O'Neill's characters came first (the play was evidently penned in the early 1940's). O'Neill's dialogue is so great - and he is so assured - that he is not averse to interweaving lines and allusions from such literary giants as Shakespeare and Baudelaire. He has given at least three of his major characters brilliant monologs - mother "Mary," who clings desperately to early religious training and a dream of becoming a great pianist; tight-fisted father "James," who finally makes us understand and even forgive the parsimony which has, in part, been responsible for much of the tragedy that has befallen the family; and "James," whose love-hate relationship with his tubercular younger brother wants both to nurture and destroy him (at one point in the play, he proudly tells his father that younger brother "Edmund" has written some brilliant lines; later, he condescendingly tells "Edmund" that it's just meaningless drivel).

This intensely personal drama plays out in a series of strikes and retreats. As characters confront each other with a breathless "gut punch," they are quick to retract whatever damaging blows they have dealt and express their love. (Modern writers tend to alternate such blows with humor or jokes to relieve the tension, and while there is humor here, it isn't used as such an obvious device.) I like the fact that "theatre" dominates the play. Theatre is illusion, and the characters here all want to exist as in a fiction. No single character seems willing to look at himself/herself or at each other with clear vision. (I like the way O'Neill uses the onset of fog or the panic expressed by "Mary" when she cannot find her glasses; it's rather like the way Williams' "Blanche" avoids mirrors and light.) Moreover, while O'Neill probably never used the word "enabler," it fits this play as well as any. The characters are so intent on "protecting" each other, they do more damage than good (think "Linda" and her "blind" adulation of "Willy" in DEATH OF A SALESMAN).

In at least one respect, the play points out a very important truth about actors and actresses. When Mr. Tyrone, recalling his early days exchanging roles with the great Edwin Booth, rues the fact that he "sold out" his integrity as a serious artist by "typing" himself for money and repeating that "type" throughout his life, I thought immediately of numerous, more recent parallels. For example, anyone who has only seen Angela Lansbury as "Jessica Fletcher" would certainly not recognize her Lady MacBeth-ish work in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE; and "good ole Sheriff Taylor" himself, Andy Griffith, had much more to offer as a slimy opportunist in Elia Kazan's A FACE IN THE CROWD. There's a real lesson here for any actor serious about his or her craft.

As the play drew to its conclusion, I thought of "Emily" in Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN. When she was allowed to live an "ordinary" day, it proved too painful, and she was content to join the dead in the cemetery and stare ahead at what was to come. What would she have done if she had spent this August 12th with the Tyrones? Moreover, I wondered, if the August 12th fell on a Thursday, what would a Friday 13th hold for this unraveling family? I shudder to think.

Anyone serious about theatre needs to study this production. It not only demonstrates why such a play needs to be performed, but how it should be performed. Hopefully, it might inspire a production of MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA or any other of O'Neill's works. O'Neill is a writer worth rediscovering.

Mr. Crewse has four of Memphis' most gifted performers assay the roles of the Tyrone family. Despite the play's length, these players know how to utilize their vocal gifts and bodies in the most creative manner. Just watch the silent expressions of mother and sons as the father has a one-sided, ominous telephone call with "Dr. Hardy." None of the three speak, but you can certainly tell by their expressions the sickening knots that twist their stomachs. Throughout the play, all of these performers have been given show-stopping moments (John Dylan Atkins offers probably the finest performance of an inebriated man I have seen on stage, and Christina Wellford Scott's final speech pulls together Ophelia and the shattered Blanche DuBois with real elegance and a shattering beauty). Bill Baker's "James Tyrone" is a reminder that this actor has been too long absent from the stage, and as the consumptive "Edmund," Gabe Beutel-Gunn, standing toe-to-toe with each of these artists, once again demonstrates why he is one of the most selective and respected young actors in Memphis. With red-haired, blue-eyed Jillian Barr as the refreshingly normal maid "Cathleen." Through February 22.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)