By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Kathi Gollwitzer
Produced by Firebelly Productions
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
In this soul-stirring Firebelly production of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning, autobiographical play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the ghosts of the past ebb and flow like the tides. Sounds of the sea draw us into a parlor of faded elegance that serves as a sitting room cluttered with books and dominated by a round, claw-foot Victorian table to suggest it is 1912.
Maintaining most of the confessional, set-piece soliloquies, director Kathi Gollwitzer has trimmed the text from four-and-a-half-hours to three, highlighting the poetic passages of great beauty without sacrificing the powerful impact. You can tell when an audience is breathing with every word uttered. Under Gollwitzer’s firm hand at the helm, the results from a mesmerizing ensemble of actors make a convoluted text clear, humanized and upbeat. The journey becomes an allegory for Everyman’s family members who open their veins and let their recriminations from the past flow.
Each character seems to talk through a mask to conceal a double self, a doppelganger, but overlap in spiritual communion. It’s as if the characters are saying to themselves: Once I had everything going for me, living the American Dream. Now I’m broken in spirit and miserable. How could this have happened to me? How could I have done this to myself?
Empathy is easy because the actors underplay the melodramatic circumstances to seem conversational and real, not bizarre.
The play starts in an un-actorish manner in the theatrical family of James Tyrone (John Collins) at a high point after breakfast. Because her father died of consumption, Mary (Patricia Foreman) is unnerved by her younger son’s “summer cold.” We immediately sense from the strained silences that something is deeply wrong. When Mary exits, the focus turns on her. Recriminations and finger pointing begin and split identities emerge. The two sons, Edmund (Andrew Pecoraro) and Jamie (Jon Townson) fear Mary is back on morphine. The day passes like a judgment on their long journey toward the darkness at the end of the day as the family confront the two crises: Mary’s addiction and Edmund’s illness. And the past continues to recycle into the present.
For one day from 8 a.m. into the dark night, we follow the four individuals in the Tyrone-O’Neill family as they reveal the internecine, smoldering resentments against each other; the other selves that haunt their souls. John Collins plays James Tyrone, based on O’Neill’s father, a fading once successful stage matinee idol, whose barroom habits and fears of dying in the poorhouse, a first generation Irishman’s sin of shame, have kept his family in a poor man’s elegance. This summer home is their only anchor of stability, a summer house, not the house Mary always wanted for a permanent address. Instead, James, driven by an Irish obsession to be the landowner, speculates in worthless investments.
Collins as the penny-pinching James Tyrone, avoids bombastic melodrama. He speaks his rant conversationally with beguiling charm. He realizes he has ruined his life by taking the easier ways to success in America. He is competitive with his sons, but awakening to the mistakes he’s made in pushing Jamie, his oldest son in the wrong direction. But his love of words, storytelling and passion for Shakespeare redeem him. He’s got a touch of cocky arrogance that’s endearing and off-putting, until he deflates himself with his keen self-awareness and self-mockery. Collins is also one of the most convincing stage drunks I’ve ever seen. He sets the tone for the other actors who try to act sober by playing against their drunkenness. It’s the only way to heighten the wonder of the tragic-comic moments.
Patricia Foreman brings a surprising wholesomeness to Mary, the great actor’s wife, who wanders at night, like a distracted Lady MacBeth, still grieving for the loss of a child who caught measles from Jamie and died at age seven. Her glazed-eyed addict is secretive and sly, hiding her addiction behind nervous denial, alternately reassured and frightened by her family’s reaction, the only clue to her dependency. Once able to use music for self-expression, her crippled rheumatic hands now limit her piano playing. Her hands that tense, flex and flutter, become her excuse for prescription refills. She longs to trade in her pain-filled guilt for her innocent girlhood in a Catholic convent. Without overacting, Foreman gives an oddly moving, progressively luminescent performance as she retreats into another world. This Mary doesn’t physically disintegrate before our eyes-although perhaps Foreman could abandon herself a bit more-she’s an innately strong woman, bitter about her life but revived by memories of a paradise lost.
Jon Townson plays Jamie, the oldest son, as alternately cynical and menacing, filled with flashpoints of self-loathing and rage as the disillusioned alcoholic. Whiskey for him has turned into a futile sacrament. Boyish at times, Jamie longs to be the favored one but lives with broken dreams. He has had only second-rate success on Broadway in following his father into the theater. His Act IV sibling-rivalry drinking bout scene with his younger brother melted me down to putty, it was so convincingly funny and terrifying.
Equally impressive Andrew Pecoraro, his deep-chested cough believable and disturbing, gives us a refreshing and sensitive Edmund, his mother’s favorite and the projection of the playwright Eugene himself, the youngest son who has returned from the sea with what the family suspects is tuberculosis. O’Neill survived his bout with the disease, but in the play, Edmund’s fate is left unresolved.
But what is important is the way Pecoraro eloquently lets Edmund’s transcendental, spiritual experience at sea soliloquy soar. Redemption through nature is possible. For an intense moment, I believed that the long journey into night could be elevated to a sublime level. “I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself-actually lost my life. I was set free!…..I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way.” The passage bonds Edmund as an antagonist, a direct opposite, to Mary, who only finds God through her drug-induced fog. “It hides you from the world and the world from you.”
Theresee McNichol as Cathleen injects delightful, irreverent moments, especially when sneaking a nip or diluting the whiskey bottle with water at Mary’s invitation. Later when tipsy she is confronted by James, her fiery-eyed defense is charming: “If I’ve a drop taken, I didn’t steal it. I was invited.” Invited but not listened to by Mary, who is absorbed in her own class-conscious world.
The search for God through the long day’s journey beyond despair is the frame for the fragile family life of the Tyrones in their individual quests for a refuge from reality. But what makes this performance unique and great is the sense of bewilderment these skilled actors bring to their roles. The polyphony of the ensemble work is brilliant.
Instead of focusing on the dysfunctional side of the family in this undisputed 20th century masterpiece, Gollwitzer mines the depths of the tragic mess and finds what holds the Tyrones together. All four characters sincerely try to reach the other but keep missing the port. What comes across is not only the tragic self-defeating self-absorption, but also the sense of loss of roots, of place and identity, that causes their guilty obsessions. The journey becomes a metaphor for our lives; our search for inner peace.
Running Time: 3:00 hours with two 7 minute intermissions.
When: February 13-16; 20-23; February 27-March 1, at 7:30 p.m.
February 10, 17, 24 and March 2 at 2 p.m.
Where: Theatre on the Run, 3700 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington, VA 22206
Tickets: $15 (adults) or $12 students/seniors 65+
Call: (703) 409 2372 or visit the website.