How sad, and stirring, to observe the author counting the coins of his childhood. I am sure some playwrights wonder, as they tally up days gone by, whether a crisis is costly enough to pay off on the page as good drama. But Eugene O’Neill, that sad master, gave us something priceless using only a pile of pennies.
The moments that make up his 1956 masterwork Long Day’s Journey into Night aren’t all rich and eye-grabbing; very few, in fact, are more than scarred and tarnished bits of memory. But as they plink into the jar one by one, we can’t help but play his accountants. The end sum, haunting and unforgettably real, proves our debt to him throughout the modern American theatre.
Arena Stage has more than a jar of pennies on their hands with which to stage O’Neill’s classic autobiographical play, set in a lonely seaside Connecticut cottage. But despite the ambitious budget for this production’s design, director Robin Phillips puts his focus on the little bits of change, locating the small sorry moments that matter most for O’Neill’s surrogate self Edmund Tyrone (Nathan Darrow), his older brother Jamie (Andy Bean), and his mother Mary and father James (Helen Carey and Peter Michael Goetz).
The semblance of warm normalcy that begins the play — we first wake to the loving comedy of Mary and James in the morning, mid-repartee at breakfast — soon proves to be a thin veneer, pockmarked with old holes and dark pitfalls. The trick is mean, but meaningful: we’ve observed just enough of this family functioning to miss its sunny side later on. As we journey through this long day with the Tyrones, mainly through the eyes of the nervous and ailing Edmund, we’re abraded with the aggressive intimacy only an extended family vacation can provide.
This same cottage serves as the setting for O’Neill’s companion comedy Ah, Wilderness!, which played through Sunday at Arena as another part of this spring’s Eugene O’Neill Festival. But despite this production’s expansive, high-ceilinged set design by Hisham Ali, shot through with bright and misty rays of sun by lighting designer Michael Whitfield, we’re pulled tight into the center of the family struggle. The show’s three hour run time may sound like an overly-generous present, but this clan’s past and future woes soon push inward with ear-popping pressure.
There’s nothing relaxing about this empty day; the silence resounds with unspoken emotional violence. For four unrelenting acts, O’Neill conjures a soft opera of family dysfunction. Anger, accusation, and remorse come in quiet, crashing waves as each Tyrone in turn decries their seeming isolation. In trying to pinpoint the sources of their pain, they frequently end up tugging at tender sutures in the loved ones sitting next to them.
Often, it’s a shared requiem for the hope and optimism of youth, and a lament of the fears, addictions, and mistakes that keep us up at night. “None of us can help the things life has done to us,” Mary says at one point. “They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
The soft sadness Mary imparts with a line like this is a testament to Helen Carey’s exceptional performance. Goetz too, in the role of the towering patriarch James, is terrific as well, shifting shape and size throughout the show with an unpredictability and torment that throws off our expectations of how a once-great father will come to terms with his sons. Darrow and Bean, as the boys, impress in several key moments as well. And Helen Hedman, as the family’s maid, nails her cameos with some well-applied humor and grace.
Blazing a trail into this thick jungle of despair — the drink, the drugs, the bold-faced lies and unfair truths, the shameful admissions and brazen claims — is best done as an audience member, not as a reader of reviews. Plot summaries abound here on the web for your perusal, but I encourage you to discover it all mid-stride with this compelling quartet of characters. Suffice it to say, in a mere write-up, that Arena Stage’s production stays sharp when it might have grown soggy, keeps a good clip where lesser productions often bog down, and respects the skewed integrity of its characters even as it digs right down into the nitty-gritty.
Eugene O’Neill’s legacy lengthens with each year that passes, and what began as one man’s two cents have paid off many times over. Such a striking and magnetic production as this one reminds us how rarely we are blessed with a candid and comprehensive look at the roots of such a fascinating life. Arena has placed their bets well this time. A penny for O’Neill’s thoughts, over time, earns our interest.
The Arena Stage production of Long Day’s Journey into Night runs thru May 6, 2012 at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Written by Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Robin Phillips
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: Approx 3 hours with one intermission
- Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
Maggie Lawrence . Culpepper Star
- Chris Klimek . City Paper
Bob Ashby . ShowBizRadio
- Jane Horwitz . Washingtonian
Logan Donaldson . BrightestYoungThings
Barbara Mackay . Washington Examiner
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
- Diane Wilshere . AccidentalThespian
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Amanda Gunther . DCMetroTheaterArts