BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's Production of LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is Captivating from Start to Finish
The latest production to open at the Stratford Festival is the Eugene O'Neill classic LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT. Directed by Miles Potter, this emotional and honest production will rip your heart out and leave you thinking about the family at the centre of the story for days. It is an absolute must-see this season at the Festival.
For just under three and a half hours, this play provides an intimate exploration of the Tyrone family-The patriarch James (Scott Wentworth), the matriarch Mary (Seana McKenna), their eldest son Jamie (Gordon S. Miller) and their younger son Edmund (Charlie Gallant). The only other character in the play, and a much-needed source of comic relief, is the maid, Cathleen (a charming Amy Keating). The year is 1912 and the entire play takes place in the living room of the Tyrone family home. Over the course of one tortuous day, the family members find themselves in a sort-of game of emotional tug-of-war between living in complete denial, versus the blunt and brutal acknowledgement of Mary's opioid addiction and Edmund's diagnosis of Tuberculosis. As the morphine and the booze increasingly become a factor, the manipulation, lies, and...truths start to work their way to the surface.
Director, Miles Potter skillfully translates O'Neill's words to the stage, and the five actors he has recruited for this journey have clearly poured their blood, sweat and tears into making this family real and raw. Despite the long runtime, the stellar company keeps the audience captivated throughout the entire production.
Seana McKenna's striking portrayal of Mary Tyrone is devastating. Mary is caught in the grips of an opioid addiction and is in denial about her own health and that of her son, Edmund. As Mary drifts further and further from reality and from the people who love her, we see the rest of the family drift further into their own despair. It is hinted that Mary's addiction issues are concurrent with some longstanding symptoms of mental illness-specifically, anxiety. Her 'nerves' along with chronic pain from rheumatism have led Mary to feel the need to self-medicate and to justify her addiction to morphine, which she had initially been prescribed for pain during childbirth two decades earlier. Her sons and husband had been filled with hope that after returning from rehab two months prior, she finally had her addiction under control. Her well-meaning family's limited understanding of her struggle, their attempts to keep an eye on her after some old behaviours return, and the fact that Edmund has fallen ill, are all seen by Mary as contributing factors to a potential relapse. This theme of blame is a common one. Throughout the play, the characters take turns passive aggressively blaming one another for things that have happened to them in their lives, and then quickly apologizing for saying such a thing.
Mr. Wentworth is captivating as James, an actor who once had a lot of promise but who ended up making a living playing the same character his entire life (much like O'Neill's actual father). James is admittedly a miser. Near the end of the play, once the booze is freely pouring, James explains to Edmund how he came to be the way he is. Edmund seems to gain some understanding of his father, but Jamie later dismisses this a story his father tells to obtain sympathy from others. This happens several times throughout the play. Each character has a story, each carries some demons or fears, but each, save maybe Edmund, also has some ulterior motives and so it is never clear what their intentions are when they share their alleged deepest darkest secrets with one another. Jamie the cynic is skeptical (even of himself), but a more hopeful Edmund seems to believe that his family members are mostly sincere.
Mr. Gallant, making his Stratford debut, is excellent as Edmund. His physical and emotional turmoil is on full display and on a steady decline throughout the course of the play. Mr. Miller is also excellent as Jamie-the character who, on the surface may seem the easiest to read, is probably actually the biggest mystery to the audience by end of the play.
When not writing for theatre, I work in the field of mental health and addiction. Whenever I see a production that explores these topics, I cannot help but reflect on whether or not the portrayal rings true to what I see in my day-to-day work. The fact that this play is a semi-autobiographical depiction of Eugene O'Neill's own family already gives it more veracity, but it is also very meaningful to see that Zoe Dodd, a Harm Reduction Worker based out of Toronto, was thanked in the acknowledgements section of the program. This play may have been written in the early 1940's and published in 1958, but many of the themes and issues addressed remain incredibly relevant today. Eugene O'Neill did not need to do any 'research' beyond his own personal experience, but I think it is monumental that someone working in the field of addiction was consulted as this cast and crew began tackling the complicated topic of opioid addiction and the toll it takes on the family unit. The result is the portrayal of a family that is very relatable today.
With the new Tom Patterson Theatre being under construction, this production is instead being performed at the intimate Studio Theatre. In this theatre, the thrust stage sits just a step above the floor, with the majority of the audience having a vantage point where they are looking down at the stage from higher up. This allows for the incredibly appropriate sensation of audience members being a 'fly on the wall' as they watch the Tyrone family dynamics play out.
When audiences walk into a theatre, they know they are expected to use their imaginations and so it does not take much to have the audience understand that a change in scenery and lighting might mean a change in location, date and time. Sometimes, we come to understand that a significant amount of time has passed simply by the fact that two scenes are separated by an intermission. This play famously takes place over the course of just one day. Lighting Designer Steve Lucas incorporates subtle changes in in brightness, placement of shadows, etc. to indicate the passing of time from early morning through to the midnight hours. Having lunch and dinner being served during the play also helps with this, as those mealtimes coincide with the two intermissions. The comment is made in the program liner notes that Eugene O'Neill took great effort to make it clear exactly what time of day it is during each Act.
By using the entire play to examine such a short period of time, O'Neill's words and Potter's direction are able to hone in on the uncomfortable moments-the glances, the glares, the things left unsaid-that make up part of everyday life for any family. By keeping the audience fully present with the Tyrone family during these uncomfortable moments, we, as an audience are better able to understand their discomfort around each other, and the denial and willful ignorance they often choose to engage in, in order to make such a moment just a tad more bearable. The entire company captures these moments in a heartbreakingly beautiful and realistic fashion. Audience members may not walk out of this play feeling 'good', but they will certainly feel 'moved', and perhaps compelled to further examine the more complicated relationships in their own lives.
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT continues in Repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 13th.
Photo Credit: Emily Cooper