New York Times, June 15, 1988
The Stars Align for 'Long Day's Journey'
By FRANK RICH
Robards, in the role of the family patriarch, James, is sharing midnight whisky, recriminations and confessions with his son Edmund when he hears the dreaded sound of his wife, Mary, thrashing about offstage in a morphine stupor. James had hoped against hope that Mary would be well again. In the moment, he must recognize that the hope, like the young convent girl he married so long ago, has vanished - and that Mary is, as Edmund has warned, "nothing but a ghost haunting the past." Once the recognition arrives, Robards's eyes seem to retreat into their sockets, the wind seems to leave his body, his physique seems to shrivel within his regal but frayed smoking jacket. We don't yet see the ghost he sees - the final spectral visit of his wife is still minutes away - but such is the apparitional reach of Colleen Dewhurst's Mary and the horror in Robards's expression that we experience the alarming, involuntary shudder of a glimpse into the grave.
Mary Tyrone is not the only ghost to be seen in "Long Day's Journey," as revived in repertory with "Ah, Wilderness!" as part of the First New York International Festival of the Arts. O'Neill's autobiographical play gives us a quartet of haunted Tyrones - each character haunted by O'Neill's own family, which was itself haunted by failed promises and blasted dreams and all the rest of what Mary calls "the things that life has done to us." The production at the Neil Simon Theater is shadowed by theater history as well. Robards and the director, Jose Quintero, restored O'Neill's reputation three decades ago with their legendary Circle in the Square revival of "The Iceman Cometh." Their partnership continued with the triumphant 1956 American premiere of "Long Day's Journey," then crested again, with the luminous addition of Miss Dewhurst, in the 1973 Broadway restoration of "A Moon for the Misbegotten."
Given the rare constellation of talent - and the further astrological constellation of the O'Neill centenary - one almost inevitably arrives at this "Long Day's Journey" expecting to find salvation in the guise of what is nearly everyone's first or second favorite American play. The rewarding, if imperfect, production actually at hand is best approached with more rational expectations. Like other renditions of this work, Quintero's staging illuminates one parent-child axis - Mary and Edmund -more brilliantly than the other. But the evening is never less than essential theatergoing. One cannot assume that there will be another chance to watch these three great theater artists explore the writer who has been their consuming passion for virtually their entire professional careers.
A somewhat subdued first act aside, an exploration is what this "Journey" proves to be. As life does more things to all of us, O'Neill's play takes on new colorations and meanings with repeated encounters; it's unlikely that Quintero has the same view of the text now that he did over 30 seasons ago. The current version has the bare-bones simplicity and sepulchral darkness of the director's 1985 "Iceman Cometh" - as befits the abstract, dreamlike, classically unified quality of the nominally realistic late O'Neill masterworks. The production's acting revelation is Miss Dewhurst's extraordinary, almost shockingly unsentimentalized Mary. One sees just how little the author forgave his mother and understands just what Kenneth Tynan meant when he said that Mary, while "on the surface a pathetic victim," was "at heart an emotional vampire."
Miss Dewhurst has a rending tragic dimension, to be sure. When she is left alone in her shabby summer home to contemplate her loneliness, the panic and longing on her pained face seem so lacking in focus that we see the internal chaos that drives her to drugs. Yet this Mary, for all her ethereal beauty and maternal silver hair, is no Dewhurst earth mother - she's a killer, forever twisting the knife in old familial wounds. The actress makes us constantly aware of how Mary repeatedly plays one son against the other and follows her strangled pleas for help with manipulative denials that she needs any help at all. Her declarations of love come with a nasty sting ("I know you didn't mean to humiliate me," she tells James by way of thanks for her second-hand car) or with a cruel infliction of guilt ("I never knew what rheumatism was until after you were born," she tells Edmund so he can take the blame for her addiction to the painkiller).
Campbell Scott, the impressive Edmund, is her born victim. With his pasty face, jet-black hair and long, delicate fingers, the soft-spoken Scott is the image of the Irish-American artist as a consumptive young man, absorbing each shock into his burdened soul until he just can't take it anymore. His belated, angry lashings out at his mother, brother and father drive the final act. It is when Scott rises over his seated father, berating him for the miserliness that will send the son to a state sanitarium, that Robards's eyes and phlegmy voice take their final plunge into his lifetime's reservoir of shame.
Explaining the sources of that shame - the bitter childhood poverty at the hands of "the Yanks," the sacrifice of his Shakespearean acting ambitions to "money success" - Robards, as always, gives resonant, ruefully comic voice to every barroom pipe dreamer in the O'Neill canon. Before the illusion-stripping final act, however, the actor, like the unreconstructed matinee idol he plays, relies a bit too easily on his trademark vocal and facial gestures; the performance wants for shading. As Jamie, the profligate son Robards created in 1956, the talented Jamey Sheridan lacks his theatrical father's air of Broadway dissipation. Sheridan is still the earnest, self-righteous Arthur Miller son he was in the last revival of "All My Sons" -an injured straight arrow taking to drink rather than a sneering cynic greasing his own skids into hell.
Such a Jamie can't quite provide the histrionic bridge to Mary's final mad scene, but Miss Dewhurst, her skin now as parchment-pale as the old wedding dress she clutches, completes the journey into night nonetheless. We see what Edmund meant when he talked about being "a ghost within a ghost": Breaking through Miss Dewhurst's drug-ravaged face is the skeletal image of the demure, innocent girl she once was. "The past is the present - it's the future, too," is how Mary earlier explains the affliction of living every day with the painful awareness of who one is. While death can disperse the ghosts of the Tyrones, their agony, accessible to any family, will eternally claw at us from the play O'Neill wrote in tears and blood.
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