BWW Review: Eugene O'Neill's Penetrating, Heartbreaking LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT at American Stage - Is It The Greatest American Play Ever Written?
"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us." --Mary Tyrone, based on Eugene O'Neill's mother, in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
"If your mother had prayed, too--She hasn't denied her faith, but she's forgotten it, until now there's no strength of the spirit left in her to fight against the curse." --James Tyrone, the larger-than-life patriarch, about Mary in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
"Got to take revenge. On everyone else. Especially you. Oscar Wilde's 'Reading Gaol' has the dope twisted. The man was dead and so he had to kill the thing he loved. That's what it ought to be. The dead part of me hopes you won't get well." --Jamie Tyrone to his brother in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
"I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!" --Edmund Tyrone, Eugene O'Neill's alter ego, in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
For films, we offer Citizen Kane to the world. For TV shows, Breaking Bad. "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan is the choice for songs, while the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is often singled out as the finest pop album produced in the U.S. And for American novels, The Great Gatsby usually nabs the crown. All of these have been chosen in various polls as the greatest American works in their specific category.
Which brings me to Eugene O'Neill's posthumously produced LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, often cited as the finest American play ever written.
For many, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT stands head of a class that includes such American classics as Our Town, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Angels in America. In his book, The Drama 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time, Daniel S. Burt places the O'Neill autobiographical drama at a whopping #6 on the list, ahead of Othello, Waiting for Godot, The Cherry Orchard, and A Doll's House. He even bluntly writes that it is "the greatest American play by the United States' greatest playwright."
Having read LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT years ago and even having performed various scenes from it in acting classes over the decades, I had still never seen a proper production of it. And before I entered American Stage in St. Petersburg to see a first-rate version of O'Neill's work, which runs thru June 30th, the thought kept gnawing at me: Is LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, written in 1940 but first performed in 1956, still the greatest American play? Does it earn its slot in theatre history? Or do the theatre professors like Dr. Burt have it all wrong, and is it in the end sadly overrated?
After the show, the answer to those questions became superfluous. I realized that it doesn't matter if LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is considered the magna cum laude of the American theatre experience. It doesn't matter where people place this on some trivial best-of lists. The power is in the play itself, the experience of seeing a masterpiece of bruised beauty--terrifying, pulverizing, a wallop in the gut.
I felt very protective of the show afterwards. I understand that it's not everyone's tastes; it's not some feel-good happy-go-lucky let's-skip-down-the-aisles-and-embrace-life theatrical elixir. It's blood and guts, life and death, written entirely from immense pain almost eighty years ago.
Some seemed put off that they had to endure the show's length; when it was first announced that the play runs longer than three hours, I heard certain audience members groan. This made me wonder: Did they groan with Les Miserables, Avengers: Endgame, or The Godfather? Why is a three-hour show so daunting for some? I once saw a FIVE HOUR production of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh and didn't have a problem with it because O'Neill writes on a gigantic canvas, and for it to work, it must take its time. And even though it's a devastating experience, this particular play is also "entertaining," though using such a word seems inappropriate with a show like this. This is beyond entertainment; this is art, a monument to dysfunction. So, all talk about its length needs to dissipate. Besides, the show is called LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, not Quick Day's Journey Into Night.
It's a lifetime captured in a single day in August of 1912, the same year as the Titanic disaster. But the Tyrone summer cottage in Connecticut is home to its own kind of disaster. The father, James, is an actor whose poverty-filled childhood caused him to be an unsympathetic miser; was his cheapness in finding an affordable doctor for his wife the initial cause of her addiction? The wife, Mary, had been an addict for 24 years and has been lost in a constant fog since going through painful childbirth with her youngest son; is he, just by being born, an unwitting accomplice to her morphine nightmare? James' sons are a troubled lot--one of them, Jamie, an alcoholic on a treacherous path; the other, Edmund, a terribly sick young man who must witness his family's agonizing slide. We follow each of them, from morning to night, as they head further and further into the abyss.
The acting is stellar by all, but Janis Stevens as Mary is on a completely different level. She's a specter of sorts, floating rather than walking, fragile and ready to break in a moment's notice. There's a moth-like quality to her, yet something otherworldly. Her Jekyll/Hyde tendencies are on display, and we have no idea what she will do next. It's a terrifying turn. At one point, when the character is upstairs and out of sight and the rest of the family is downstairs, it's not unlike a horror film, the victims waiting for the monster to appear.
Even during the show's scene changes, Ms. Stevens' never loses character. In one blackout, we can see her as she slowly glides out of the room, her hands grabbing the walls, trying to keep her balance. It's heartbreaking, and we want to turn away from her pain, but we can't. Like pedestrians witnessing a particularly blood-drenched car wreck, we can't take our eyes off of her.
As of right now, half way through the year, Janis Stevens gives the finest single performance that I have seen in 2019.
But the others in the cast are easily up to her supremacy. As her husband, James Tyrone, James Keegan is a towering presence. Looking like Burl Ives' Big Daddy merged with Velasquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, he is imposing and yet clueless, a blowhard and yet a Teddy bear, a loving husband as well as a neglectful cheapskate.
Billy Finn is explosive as the self-loathing, whore-mongering Jamie. His character knows the secrets, and yet he also knows he's tainted inside, a bad guy who actually, ironically tries to get better at one point, to stop drinking, but follows his mother's dive into the darkness of addiction (in his case, alcohol). He's cynical, and his one moment of hope--hope for his mother's wellness--ultimately causes him to become an even worse creation: The personification of acid-tongued disdain; a destroyer of all dreams.
Josh Odsess-Rubin is absolutely brilliant as Edmund. Resembling John Turturro and a young Sean Penn, he looks frail from the start, coughing from a dreaded disease. But he comes into his own in Act 3, in a scene where he's alone with his father, finishing off a bottle of alcohol and playing cards. His monologue about the sea, one of the most iconic monologues from any show, is spellbinding and about the best performed that you will ever see. Edmund's character arch is, in some ways, the most noticeable--his family's damnation will ultimately lead to his artistic salvation, perhaps the dawn after such a long night.
In a small role of comic relief, Rose Hahn as Cathleen, the family maid, gives us a much-needed respite from the Tyrone cyclone.
Brendon Fox has directed a powerhouse here, one of the strongest, most penetrating plays in recent memory, up there with American Stage's August: Osage County in 2011. It's that strong.
James Kronzer's set follows O'Neill's instructions to the tee (O'Neill wrote every last detail in his stage directions, down to what books rested on the bookcase). Trish Kelley's costumes are quite good, especially the bright, ghostly wear of Mary that shines like a poltergeist whenever the lights fade. Rachel Harrison's excellent, evocative sound design starts even before the show--we hear the distant gulls and even the foghorn that will keep Mary up at nights. Hearing them prior to the performance, they seem to haunt us even before we meet the haunted Tyrone clan.
After the performance, I walked out of the theatre feeling withered, dazed, probably looking like an extra from The Walking Dead. I was shaken more than I ever thought I would be. The combination of the very best writing that this country has ever produced and the tear-your-heart-out performances at American Stage, in a fast three and a half hours, was almost too much. On the way home, I could barely make out a coherent sentence. I had just witnessed something so special, mammoth, epic in scope, that I was a mess. It's now the morning after, and I am still a mess. O'Neill's work has infected my soul, and yet, withered as I may be, I also feel galvanized at having experienced a creation so utterly overwhelming. If LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT isn't the greatest American play of all time, then I don't know what is.