Long Day's Journey into Night lives up to its name

John Skelley (left) and Peter Michael Goetz take on O'Neill's notoriously difficult play
Michael Brosilow

Like plenty of writers, Eugene O'Neill mined his own life in his work. Nowhere is this clearer than in Long Day's Journey into Night. Posthumously released (O'Neill had wanted publication to wait a quarter-century; his wife released it within years of his death), the play digs deep into O'Neill's seriously dysfunctional family. The dirty laundry includes alcoholism, drug addiction, and the death of a child.

It's a notoriously difficult play to stage, requiring much from the five-actor cast and the audience. Maybe that's why, over the past half-century, the Guthrie hadn't tackled O'Neill's signature play.

The first such production, now onstage at the Wurtele Thrust Stage, doesn't entirely solve the play's troubles. Director Joe Dowling pushes the pace, often to the detriment of the drama. The dialogue sometimes overlaps, which tends to make for a wall of noise from the stage. The actors have their own struggles as they attempt to penetrate the characters and find something beyond simple melodrama. They aren't always successful, though the show improves steadily from a shaky beginning to a strong, emotional end.

Set in a small, coastal New England town, the play's action unfolds over a single day in the family's summer home. From the start, the Guthrie's staging works against it. While John Lee Beatty's set is a handsome evocation of the Monte Cristo cottage, its vast size robs the play of its face-to-face intensity. The actual cottage is cramped — maybe cozy is a better term — and the outsized personalities that inhabit O'Neill's world would have been on top of each other.

Robbed of a chance for intimacy, the company has a tough time connecting the audience to the characters. Oh, we know the types pretty well. There is the overbearing patriarch James (Peter Michael Goetz), the lost mother Mary (Helen Carey), the drunken son Jamie (John Catron), and the artistic soul Edmund (John Skelley). Their arguing seems well worn by now, rehearsed over and over again among themselves.

Two issues mark this particular day. Edmund is sick, and his illness is clearly not a summer cold, as his mother wishes it to be. He is waiting to hear back from the town doctor, but there are fears that it is consumption. The pressure of this, along with general unhappiness, has driven Mary to her own addiction, morphine.

Like the arguments, the signs of Mary's addiction are well worn, but the men of the family are — or at least feel — powerless to stop her slide. As the day continues, Mary's condition worsens, and the arguments move deeper into the places that make each character tick.

This is where the production is at its best. As the two acts that make up the second half unfold, we come closer to the primary motivations for the characters. The volume gets turned down a notch, and the actors finally find some space to breathe. In the end, it is Carey who carries the evening, crafting a character full of contradictions and then taking her deep into a personal hell from which, within the framework of the play, there is no escape. 

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