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Long Day's Journey Into Night

Jungle Theater

DRUG ADDICTION AND family dysfunction ain't what they used to be. Why, there was a time in this country when if you had a family member whose medicinal needs went beyond two aspirin and a shot of whiskey, you did the sensible thing and shut up about it. Nowadays, of course, we understand so much more: If you have a drug problem, check into rehab. And if your family is dysfunctional enough, get thee to a talk show, write a memoir, secure the movie rights to your tragic story and hire a publicist--only then can you stop being a victim.

Eugene O'Neill wouldn't stand a chance in the 1990s. If Long Day's Journey Into Night--O'Neill's semi-autobiographical account of growing up with a mother addicted to morphine--had been written today, there is no way it would win a Pulitzer Prize. O'Neill's family problems look rather tame in comparison to the pathologies of contemporary middle-class America. There's guilt, shame, denial and drunkenness galore, but no incest or physical abuse, and certainly no creative perversions to hook an ad campaign on.

However, to truly appreciate how far America has come with regard to its dramatic treatment of drug addiction and family dysfunction--and to recognize Eugene O'Neill's role in making this modern candor possible--you nevertheless owe it to yourself to set aside an evening for the Jungle Theater's staging of Long Day's Journey. This isn't the best production of the play ever mounted, but it is the finest one Twin Citians are likely to see at this juncture in American history, before the concepts of shame, guilt, and denial become charming artifacts of a bygone era.

Written in 1943, but set in the summer of 1912, Long Day's Journey chronicles a series of revelatory family squabbles from breakfast to midnight in the Tyrone family's summer cottage on the New England coast. Even by modern standards, the family is respectably messed up. Edmund, the younger son (played by George Sutton), has already survived one suicide attempt and, when the play begins, is waiting to see if a rattling cough in his throat is tuberculosis. Jamie, the elder son (Terry Hempleman), is an ambitionless, thirtysomething alcoholic who still lives at home and seems to have dedicated his life to ridiculing his father, James Tyrone (Charles Nolte). Like O'Neill's own father, James is a great stage actor whose disappointment in his sons is his favorite topic of conversation, right up there with how his family is going to drive him into the poorhouse. In the midst of it all, Mary Tyrone (Binky Wood) has spent the past 20 years preferring the numbing fog of a morphine injection to the company of her bickering brood.

As usual, Jungle artistic director Bain Boehlke has fashioned a gorgeous set, complete with a wood-beam lattice ceiling, oak cabinetry, period art, and a portrait of William Shakespeare peering over the proceedings like a knowing spirit from the great beyond. The production itself isn't as definitive or as finely crafted as some of the classics the Jungle has so successfully revived in the past, but there is plenty of sharp acting and family turmoil to keep things interesting.

Binky Wood is particularly effective as the emotionally vexed and highly unstable mother, Mary. In Wood's characterization, Mary is obviously a once beautiful, intelligent woman whose life has become an agonizing fight against loneliness and despair--one that usually ends with her walking around the house like a ghost, oblivious to everyone and everything around her. The rest of the household blames Mary's behavior on her drug addiction, but the family itself--with all its pretense and hypocrisy--is what Mary is really trying to escape from. Morphine is the symptom, not the disease, and Wood makes this abundantly clear in every ethereal, heartbreaking gesture. In other notable roles, Charles Nolte is a solid but somewhat lackluster James Tyrone, and Terry Hempleman continues to refine the art of acting completely blotto onstage.

Still, as commendable a production as it is, it's tough to watch the Jungle's Long Day's Journey without an involuntary chuckle or two. In 1956, when this play was first produced, after O'Neill was already dead, his willingness to dig so deeply into his family's wounds was seen as courageous and cathartic--even shocking. Now, it is unabashedly funny when Mary tells her family she is headed "upstairs" (where the drugs are) and the Tyrone men reflexively leap for the scotch bottle. Director Bain Boehlke is obviously aware that Long Day's Journey is becoming a comedy, for he allows the play to parody itself at times. In truth, he has no choice. America has finally caught up with O'Neill: Drug addiction and family dysfunction are now not only a way of life, but a currency for public discourse almost too banal to be taken as seriously as this 54-year-old Journey.

Long Day's Journey Into Night runs through June 22. Tickets cost $13-$18. Call 822-7063.

 
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