REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
2. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, directed by Malcolm Morrison. High Point Theatre, North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, July 29 - August 31, 1983.
It's a good thing that, when I purchased my ticket to see Long Day's Journey at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival, I didn't know that I was a member of its opening night audience. There was none of the hoopla that is normal on such a special night. "But this is summer stock," an elderly patron reminded me later, "and in North Carolina at that. If you want hoopla, you belong at the tobacco auction!" I never feel comfortable at a premiere--how many times have we heard actors or directors say, "we could have used one more night of rehearsal"? Thanks to my ignorance, I made myself completely at home and sat back for an evening of genuine O'Neill.
And my expectations were met. This production was far and away the tightest of any O'Neill I've seen. It was obvious that when Malcolm Morrison went hunting in New York, he had this show in the front of his mind: the casting was superb ... well, almost superb! Ann Owens, although a very capable actress, seemed to struggle at times with the complexities of the character of Mary Tyrone. And the result was apathy, instead of sympathy. Mary's whole battle with the morphine up to her climactic return at the end of II, i usually arouses images of a larger-than-life morphine bottle (indeed, it is the sixth character) lording it over a battered and dejected victim. Here, the image was closer to the dimensions of a Vick's nasal spray. A vocal monotone (I think this was for affect) added to making Owens' a one-dimensional Mary. What a shame!
To add to the problem, Mary was ill-served by the lighting design, which did nothing to enhance her isolation. For instance, when she entered at the end with her wedding gown, the entire stage was flooded with bright light--so bright that the three male Tyrones had to squint. Suffice it to say that the design here was either unfinished or just plain bad. And the set design, although creative and ambitious, was very, very far from 1912, and even further from Connecticut. Let's imagine Paris in 1940!
As Edmund, Eric Zwemer never quite captured the pathos the role calls for. Perhaps his all too light opening was too high to reach and tackle by evening's end; and Mary's failure to show any sincere concern for him took its toll as well. Slightly effeminate at the start, and increasingly so from the effects of the "Barleycorn," this Edmund was at times a chore to believe in. All in all, though, Zwemer's good points far outweighed his defects. He clearly demonstrated his understanding of Edmund as well as his complex relationship to the others.
Mel Shrawder's Jamie was the wastrel we know, deplore, and love. Whether sober or "blotto," this Jamie was the reincarnation of Mephistopheles, even if a rather exhausted one! When he entered, "drunk as a fiddler's bitch," he was finally at ease in his semi-"misbegotten" state. As he should be; we all felt the relief that resulted from his involuntary verbal lashes at both his brother and father. But Shrawder, like Zwemer, had his minor flaws. How does Jamie feel about still living at home, mooching off the old man? The performance provided no answer. But the confessional speech was just right--just the explosion/plea he needed to round out his character. And his manifestation of the philosophy of cynical materialism created a sparked conflict with Edmund's views of the aspiring artist.
All three of these actors were strong enough to stand on their own and hold an audience; and with that as a base, it's no wonder why every confrontation was gripping. But the really mesmerizing force throughout the show was the James Tyrone of Max Jacobs. Of all the performances I've seen, only Christopher Plummer's Iago was more powerful. There were very few dry eyes in the house after his "poorhouse" speech. Still possessing the Irish "brogue you could cut with a knife," Jacobs' Tyrone was every tear of the "hopeless hope"!
And finally, I tip my hat to Malcolm Morrison, who can't have wasted a minute of rehearsal time. He had carefully blended all eight Tyrones into a beautiful reverie of pain and suffering. Not only did he achieve the difficult task of creating all of the play's invisible "characters"--the fog, the whiskey, the past, etc.--but he brought them vividly to life. My favorite of all the invisibles is the vague cloud of Eugene O'Neill's spirit, which observes the "journey" and suffers all the while. To create this image is one feat; but to have O'Neill dry his eyes and applaud is an unforgettable achievement. Passing flaws notwithstanding, it may be years before I see O'Neill at this level again.
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