REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
1. A TOUCH OF THE POET, directed by David Thacker. The Young Vic and Comedy Theatres, London, January-May 1988.
David Thacker, the artistic director of The Young Vic Theatre, contemplated with some trepidation the task of presenting London's premier production of A Touch of the Poet. Dealing with a play by an "indisputable genius of the theatre," as he put it, yet one virtually unknown to his audience (Poet had been performed only once before in England, sometime in the sixties and never in London), he had the sobering responsibility of doing it right. His would be the interpretation to which critics would compare future productions.
Thacker needn't have worried. His Poet, starring Timothy Dalton as Con and Vanessa Redgrave as Nora, captured with insight and sensitivity the nuances and subtleties of a complex play. The individual performances were compelling, the ensemble deftly orchestrated from the morning routine at Melody's inn to the Nora-Sara tableau of the final scene.
A Touch of the Poet opened at The Young Vic in January 1988 for a run of three-and-a-half weeks, then moved to the West End's Comedy Theatre for another nine weeks, closing on May 14. (It could have run "for ages," Thacker told me, except that Dalton and Redgrave prefer shorter runs). The Young Vic version was presented in the round in an intimate house that ordinarily seats only 485 (for the sell-out crowds the theatre was seating 530 per night). The Comedy is a much larger house with a proscenium stage. I saw both productions, at the invitation of the director, and am hard pressed to choose the superior one. The intimacy and spatial versatility of the theatre in the round fostered a natural and fluid performance; but the version at the Comedy, though more formal and static, allow Thacker to focus key scenes, to freeze moments--like the mirror episodes, for instance, and the final, powerful image of Sara sitting at Nora's feet, gazing despairingly off into space. It also allowed for a clearer definition of spatial relationships: the entrance to the bar (up several steps) over against the inn's front door, a symbolically significant differentiation; the outside windows of upstairs rooms (including Simon's, lit by a candle during the final act, reminding us of his presence) above the planked façade of the bar's outer wall. (Thacker remarked that it was only after the set was designed that he discovered O'Neill's own sketch; they are remarkably similar.) The proscenium production added realistic details: a nineteenth century map of the eastern states on the wall; in the background, Con's mare whinnying and stamping and the distant wail of Patch Riley's pipes.
Thacker and his cast had to cope with the Melodys' long day's journey, and long it most assuredly was. Dalton effectively conveyed the desperate pass to which Con's life had come. The day--and his life--seemed endless. (The West End performance which I saw ran a full 3 hours 40 minutes.) This Con is, first of all, not just a man who likes to drink; he is severely alcoholic and can't get through the morning without "a hair of the dog." He vacillates between his need for companionship and his disdain of the "Irish riffraff" around him, his deep love for Nora and his repugnance at her smell of onions and stew, his pride in Sara and his fear of her rejection. Dalton's outbursts in contrary directions convinced us that something must give. Thus when Con retreated into his Byronic pose, conjuring before his mirror the glory of days gone by, we believed in both the validity of his dream and his need to escape it.
Con's aristocratic hauteur is maintained at the expense of his long-suffering wife, the devoted Nora, played superbly by Redgrave, whose face was suffused with a radiant glow whenever she entered Con's presence. She humbly retreated when he was distracted or displeased; she fiercely defended him against any detractor, including her equally beloved daughter Sara (Rudi Davies). Her concentration was unfaltering; there was never a moment when we did not completely believe in her love for her man, a love which is Nora's joy and the source of her pride.
Con's love-hate response to Nora and Sara and his alternating pride and self-disgust lie at the heart of this play and were captured admirably in Thacker's production. This interplay is, of course, indicated quite clearly in O'Neill's stage directions. The notable fact is that Thacker took them seriously. "What I intended to do," Thacker told me, "was to start off with O'Neill's suggestions and see how things developed from there. What I discovered was that most of the time what he specifies is absolutely right."
Thacker was also able to capture the play's intensely Irish flavor. I was barely aware of British actors playing American roles, probably because the only "Americans" in the play are the aristocratic Deborah Harford (Amanda Boxer), her lawyer (Malcolm Tierney), and, to a lesser extent, Sara. The humor, the ubiquitous drinking, the parasitical "boyos" authentic in appearance and dialect, and Nora's lilting speech and Gaelic cadences: these underscored the Irish tradition of the shebeen. My only quibble here is that Davies did not convey the extent to which Sara has assimilated American ways. The contrast between her normal speech and those sections when she drops into a brogue weren't marked enough; her tendency to rush her lines, here as elsewhere, blurred this crucial distinction.
Moreover, her love for Con did not shine through her anger and pain, as it must if we are to believe her anguish at Con's reversion to Irish peasant. Although her West End performance showed more of this tension than the earlier one, in which her reactions toward Con seemed uniformly hostile, it still needed refining. She was best in her scenes with Nora, in which her spontaneous affection and loving admiration for her mother were convincingly conveyed; and when she spoke of Simon, at which time she glowed as radiantly as Nora in her talk of Con.
In both productions, however, the rhythm of dream and denial, hope and despair, key to grasping the play, was for the most part profoundly understood and accurately portrayed. Con is both admirable and detestable; we are convinced on both scores. In an early scene, for instance, Dalton did a bit of imaginary fencing, duelling an unseen enemy. The moment was almost almost comic, until we saw him crumble in anguish and self-hatred immediately afterward. The mirror scenes focussed this duality, especially in the later production. In the earlier, there was a tendency to laugh at an almost clownish prancing before the mirror.) In the Comedy production Con was dignified and heroic as he rose to the power of Byron's lines; afterwards, as he preened and posed, the audience laughed. Both reactions are appropriate.
In a masterful stroke, Thacker mined the mirror for still another insight. At one point, Sara, confident of Simon's love, did a small curtsy in front of the mirror and said, "Mrs. Simon Harford, at your service." Simon's mother Deborah, too, in her long rambling scene with Sara, was caught by her own reflection in the mirror (a detail which was added in the West End version). Not only did this link both Sara and Deborah to Con in their need for illusions and dreams; it pointed out that this is finally a play about perception. We see ourselves in many mirrors: in the eyes of those who love and hate us, in our perception of the past, in the props--like Con's Talavera uniform--we select to create our present persona. This accounts for the pairing of personae (Sara and Nora, for instance, represent two tendencies in Con, ambition and affection; Jamie Cregan is a shadow of Con's past self; both Con and Simon are "poets") as well as the doubling of situations (Sara's repetition of Nora's "sin"). What is finally crucial, the play suggests, is the mirror we choose.
Con finally opts to relinquish the Major Melody role, turning instead to Nora, to the fellowship of his Irish cronies, to the past and old Ned Melody in the shebeen. It was a transformation tragically rendered. As Dalton's Melody stumbled into the bar, eyes glazed and uniform covered with blood (the makeup was all too realistic), we watched with fascination and dismay the emergence of the Irish peasant. The "loutish grinning clown" of O'Neill's stage directions appeared before our eyes in an extremely powerful closing scene; and when, as Sara tried to call the Major back to life and Con cried out in anguish, "For the love of god, Sara, let me go," the pain was palpable.
It was extremely gratifying to see such an intelligent and moving interpretation of a play London had not experience before; and its enthusiastic reception by audience and press alike equally warms the heart of all O'Neillians, who are much indebted to Mr. Thacker and his fine cast.
-- Laurin R. Porter
2. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, directed by Malcolm Morrison. Denver Center Theatre Company, January 5 - February 12, 1988.
As part of the O'Neill centenary celebrations, the Denver Center Theatre Company mounted Long Day's Journey Into Night, the second O'Neill play they have mounted in as many years. During the 1986-87 season, the company staged The Emperor Jones, directed by Donald McKayle, in collaboration with DCTC artistic director Donovan Marley and Cleo Parker Robinson's Denver-based dance ensemble company. In the case of Long Day's Journey, rather than present the play in The Stage, where Jones was mounted--a 1000-seat thrust-stage auditorium, the largest of the three theatre spaces in the Denver complex--the company decided to place O'Neill's classic in The Space, an experimental, multileveled, 400-seat theatre-in-the-round.
At first it appeared a strange choice: the play seems to demand a space commensurate with its scope and length, with its sweeping passions and violence, its monumental personal struggles. One could imagine Ah, Wilderness! in this intimate, close environment; perhaps even The Emperor Jones, remembering its initial overcoming of cramped quarters in the Provincetown Playhouse--but not Long Day's Journey Into Night. Yet the small theatre-in-the-round worked well, and director Malcolm Morrison took full advantage of the possibilities to create an interesting and generally satisfying production.
More than in conventional proscenium performances of the play, this production was able to represent visually both the isolation and the repetitive patterns--particularly the physical patterns--of the Tyrones. Three exits led from the circular stage, each leading to some demarcated "other world" of the characters, never seen by the audience: one to the upstairs and the dreaded front room where Mary Tyrone continually retreats during the course of the day and night; a second to both the kitchen and the back parlor where Bridget oversees the cooking and serving of the family's meals; and the third to the outside. These three exits served to emphasize the differences in the possible escapes of the family members. While all ascend and descend the stairs leading to the second story, the men stay only a brief time, in order to change clothes for their frequent departures outside. For Mary upstairs is her main sanctuary, an escape from what she interprets as the prying, accusatory eyes of her family. The back parlor is also a utilitarian way-station for the men, where they eat their meals before or after trips outside. Again, it offers more for Mary. When ascent is precluded either by timing or by the suspicion of the others, she goes to the kitchen, ostensibly to oversee the preparation of the food, but usually to escape the censure she feels in the living room. The third exit is used only by the men. Mary never uses it, at least not in view of the audience, since her auto trip with Cathleen is recounted after the fact, never acted out.
Mary's particular isolation thus became painfully apparent in this production. The men come and go; she stays fixed but "goes" in the one way she knows how: through the escape offered by morphine. While the circular playing space was completely open, she seemed trapped and suffocated within its confines, able to leave in only two directions, and constantly returning to where she began: the center of the ring. At various times, Mary walked to the outside exit, and wistfully gazed into the imagined space beyond. But she did not--or could not--move in that direction. "In a real home no one is lonely," she says. This production seemed to add: in a real home one might be able to go out the front door.
The unusual playing space provided another physical dimension to the play. Unlike most theatres-in-the-round, this one has upper boxes and a balcony of several rows at different heights around the stage, skewed at an incline which requires the audience to lean forward to see the action. The effect of viewing the play from above--as I did during the first act, preferring to move closer to the action for the remaining acts of the play--was like watching some sort of physical skirmish in an Elizabethan arena. From this angle the confrontations in the Tyrone home resembled some sort of ritualistic combat as the four moved around the pit below. After each exchange, one wondered who was going to remain erect and unbloodied.
Besides the unusual staging, the Denver production also experimented with the delivery of dialogue. Morrison has his actors use talk-overs, where one character begins a speech before another finishes. At first the technique was effective, if somewhat surprising; but when it continued throughout most of Act I, it became a transparent convention. Used more sparingly, it might work as a realistic measure of how people in the heat of passion may not wait for the requisite end of another person's words in order to begin their own, much as Caryl Churchill uses the device in Top Girls, for instance. In this production, the technique finally dissipated the power of O'Neill's lines, undermining rather than enhancing the dislocations among the characters, which O'Neill depicts most successfully through the simple force of the words. What the resultant cacophony did allow was a heightening of the silences when no one talked, a device used in several sections of Act I, but abandoned as the director allowed O'Neill's own tempo to take over the production.
The talented actors played well together, reflecting their repertory training, but they never seemed to make the most of their speeches. The only actor brought in specifically for this performance was Carol Mayo Jenkins (the English teacher, Elizabeth Sherwood, in the television series Fame), who joined the company to play Mary. She was a young, attractive Mary, almost sprightly in Act I, allowing the audience to imagine the possibilities of what life before the debilitating morphine might have been. Her gradual descent into her addiction was well done. Since she began on such a high note, she had considerable room to fall, though even in the last scene she was less deranged and lost than most Mary Tyrones. The most obvious failure in her performance was in this final scene. Rather than offer a powerful or a wistful childlike revery, she seemed far too perfunctory. In a certain measure it was not her fault: the scene came directly after what in this production was the climax of both action and emotion: Jamie's confrontation with Edmund.
Michael Winters played Jamie with more intensity than the role is usually given. Less wise guy than frustrated and clearly unloved other son, he was a cynical, seething figure who finally exploded into rage, fits, and uncontrollable sobbing in his revelatory scene with Edmund, exploding as well all the pent up emotions of the entire Tyrone family.
In the last scene, when the three Tyrone men were seated at the living room table and Mary made her final entrance, the men were too spent to respond to the spectre before them, but so too was the audience, who had just experienced the wrenching confrontation between the brothers, played beautifully, but overshadowing the other relationships in the play. And when Mary spoke her lines as if delivering a speech, the play faded out on a note of indifference rather than acute pain or understanding as it should if the actress playing Mary Tyrone is up to the ultimate demands of the role.
Edmund, as played by Jamie Horton, was a strong foil for Winters' Jamie. He was an earnest young man, clearly sick and clearly attempting to seek love and reassurance from a mother who could give neither. However, he, too, was disappointing in what should be his most searing speech: his description of his moment of total forgetfulness of self at sea. Horton delivered the lines in such an offhand manner that they lost most of their beauty and rhythm. When he said he "would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish," several in the audience actually laughed--almost understandably, since the lines seemed more a humorous aside than a revelatory recollection of belonging.
James Lawless, as James Tyrone, offered what very well could be a flat, disappointing portrayal. However, it almost worked since he turned the matinee idol into a caricature of the Victorian paterfamilias who is self-consciously playing the role of father for which he is eminently unsuited. The reading, by accident or design, offered an interesting slant to Tyrone's own methods of dealing with family matters: assume a pose. Less studied and forced were his scenes with his wife and the grief he felt over her slippage into morphine. It was only he who looked around as Mary offered the play's last lines.
While the Denver Center production never soared, and failed to fully realize the key scenes mentioned, it did not completely sour O'Neill's great play. The family members played well against each other: one could imagine that they had been at it a long time--so long, in fact, that they often went through the exchanges as if playing a familiar chamber piece, no longer needing to look directly at each other to get their cues.
Making few textual cuts and adding little stage business besides compacting the kitchen and back parlor spaces, the director was faithful to the spirit of the play, if not sufficiently sensitive to its power. His stage use and venue choice provided interesting details and possibilities, although the actors did not turn the powerful play into the overwhelming experience a more accomplished cast or a more sensitive director might produce.
-- Linda Ben-Zvi
3. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, directed by David Hammond. PlayMakers Repertory Company, Paul Green Theatre, ,University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 30 - February 28, 1988.
There will be many tributes to Eugene O'Neill in this, his centennial year. But I cannot imagine a finer or more important one than the full-length production--the first, evidently, since its original Broadway run almost 57 years ago--of Mourning Becomes Electra by the PlayMakers Repertory Company, the resident professional theatre group at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. My hat is off to Executive Producer Milly S. Barranger, and to Artistic Director David Hammond who directed the two-part performance. Their faith in O'Neill's text and in the ability of their audience to appreciate and relish a two-part, five-hour drama bore rich fruit that more than justified this reviewer's 612-mile flight to share in the opening-day feast when both parts were performed in one afternoon and evening.
Since my hat is off, I may as well eat it! Reviewing the Trinity Rep's trimmed production of the same play in the last issue (pp. 34-36), I said (1) that "only if O'Neill's text is presented as written ... can the true note of tragedy be struck and the towering passions of the protagonists be believed," and (2) that "a proscenium stage is an essential ingredient." I won't retreat from my first assumption, which was proved true in Chapel Hill; but the second was categorically refuted. On a handsome new open stage designed by Desmond Heeley--a worthy successor to his earlier designs for the Guthrie in Minneapolis and the Stratford Festival in Ontario--the performance at the Paul Green Theatre proved that O'Neill's prescribed pillars are expendable (better to scrap them than have them looming indecorously indoors, as in Providence), and that there is a way to play the two-level shipboard scene on a thrust stage without relegating the murder of Adam Brant to an invisible and virtually inaudible space below a trapdoor. (An offstage murder may be more "classical," but in this instance it is hardly theatrical.) The Brant-Christine tryst was played down-center, and was witnessed, as if from above, by Lavinia and Orin, who were lighted from below as they huddled on an elevated platform at the rear. The square of light which etched the guilty lovers in surrounding darkness could not have come from the eavesdroppers' vantage point behind them, nor could the witnesses have been illuminated by the glow in the cabin; but, since Brant had appeared on the same platform for his scene-opening conversation with the Donkeyman, the audience had no trouble suspending its disbelief and accepting the spatial dislocation.
One of the brilliances of O'Neill's Americanized Oresteia, despite its length, is its utter simplicity. Not psychological simplicity, of course: the strands of guilt and complicity, of madness, vengefulness and twisted passions, are as deeply convoluted as one could wish--perhaps even more so. But the play has a theatrical simplicity that emulates and equals its classical sources. The overtones may be symphonic, but the work as a whole is an extended chamber piece, a series of small, consecutive and interrelated vignettes seldom involving more than three players at a time, frequently only two. Like King Lear, it is a small family drama writ large, one that expands in the memory far beyond the modest proportions of its presentation. Cut it, and the delicate psychological and interpersonal nuances are lost, leaving only the creaking hulk of Monte Cristo melodrama. Play it in full, and the characters come to life in all their complexity, and--just as important--we come to care about them, as we did in this virtually uncut performance.
In the PlayMakers' staging, the trilogy's fourteen acts were divided into two parts with one intermission each, the second part beginning with the aforementioned shipboard scene in East Boston (the fourth act of "The Hunted"), and the intermissions coming at the end of "Homecoming" and after the first act of "The Haunted." At the premiere and on subsequent weekends, the two parts were performed on the same day with a two-hour dinner break between them. Fluid transitions were provided by the use of movable set pieces (tables, chairs, Ezra's bed and later his catafalque, etc.) on the large open stage in front of scenic designer Bill Clarke's unit set at the rear--two tall platforms at our left and center, and twelve steps leading up to a black Grecian doorway at the right. It took just a bit of nautical rigging to make the left platform a believable ship's deck; and a scrim across the top of the platforms served for expressionistic projections of the Mannon family portraits—sometimes of various patriarchs, sometimes multiple portraits of Ezra, part of whose magnified profile periodically appeared in the doorway during the second and third plays, suggesting an obtrusive presence that death could not eradicate.
As in any chamber work, each instrument must play its own part and blend effectively with its partners; and the PlayMakers' cast filled the bill admirably, advanced acting students joining seasoned professionals in a seamless ensemble. Of the former, David Whalen was outstanding as an Orin whose descent into madness was wrenchingly believable. His running entrance on his return from the war, knapsack on his back and rifle and sword at his sides, was the epitome of youthful vitality and health, despite the bandage around his head. He picked his mother up, twirled her around, and lovingly berated his sister as an old "fuss buzzer"--suggesting both his psychic distance from Lavinia already and, in retrospect later, the distance he will soon travel toward incest and suicide. The change began in the scene before Boston, when Lavinia pleaded with Ezra's corpse to make Orin believe her accusations, and Orin chimed in as if their father were still alive. From then on, despite an excess of feverish hands-to-temples gestures, his disintegration was subtle and moving.
Tandy Cronin succeeded in the difficult task of making plausible the wild swings in Lavinia's behavior and appearance--from stiff and humorless avenger, to near-reincarnation of her voluptuous mother, to stoical self-immolator as she climbed the steps for the last time. And she held her own in her verbal duels with her mother, which is saying a lot because Ira Thomas's Christine was a sensational achievement.
Tenderly loving in her reunion with Orin, venomous when Lavinia interrupted it (her "What do you want?" positively dripped with vitriol!), Ms. Thomas's Christine could change at will from sultry belle to ironic commentator, from murderess matriarch to tormented lover. For all her villainy, it was hard to be unaffected by her scream when she saw the pill box that Vinnie had planted on Ezra's body; and especially when, pitifully isolated, she read of Adam's death, sank to the floor with the pallor of death on her face, and keened at agonizing length. Ira Thomas should be declared a national treasure. certainly at least a North Carolina one. Thanks in part to the completeness of the text, she made Christine a real woman, not a melodramatic marionette.
All of the roles were played with comparable skill. Maury Cooper was effective as both the troubled Ezra and the besotted chantyman. Patrick Egan was both gruff and emotional as Adam Brant. James Lawson and Susanna Rinehart as Peter and Hazel provided the norm against which the Mannon madnesses could be measured, though Ms. Rinehart's giggles did not make the norm particularly appealing. Paul Tourtillotte had a good tenor voice and a knowing way of understatement as Seth, and the "chorus" members were effectively costumed to emphasize the social distance between Seth's audience at the first play's start (plain, no-nonsense, homely garb) and the higher-class visitors at the start of The Hunted (hoopskirts, feathered hats, and fancier suits). Throughout, Bill Clarke's costumes succeeded in filling the large stage with swirls of varied and appropriate color, and Robert Wierzel's lighting design aided in clarifying the various locales and underscoring the changing moods.
Our regional and resident theatre companies are the guardians and trustees of American drama--both its future, in their nurturing of new playwrights; and its past, in their preservation of the riches already amassed. Since Broadway has largely relinquished both of those responsibilities, their function is especially important. For its exciting resurrection-in-full, after more than half a century, of Mourning Becomes Electra, what's left of my hat is still off to the PlayMakers Repertory Company. They stand with the best, and their contribution to the O'Neill centennial was enormous.
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
4. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, directed by Jose Quintero, and AH, WILDERNESS!, directed by Arvin Brown. Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, CT, March 22 - May 21, 1988.
Broadway's major contributions to the O'Neill centennial, opening in June at the Neil Simon Theatre, had tryout runs at the Yale Rep, which ran them in repertory at the larger University Theatre instead of its regular playhouse. This was understandable, considering the luminaries involved, and the UT's wide stage was ideal for the spectacular sets of Ben Edwards (Journey) and Michael H. Yeargan (Wilderness). Naturally, tryout performances may lack the polish and sense of ensemble of the subsequent transplantation on Broadway, so this is more an interim report than a definitive review. But there was already much to admire in the New Haven manifestation, though Long Day's Journey did not yet equal its companion piece in illumination and conviction.
Ah, Wilderness! is, of course, the more accessible of the two plays, and this production had everything necessary to suggest real life on the Connecticut shore circa 1906: Joplinesque piano music to frame the scenes and set the mood; all the right songs ("In the Sweet Bye and Bye," which Sid conducted with a lobster as baton during the diner scene; "Bedelia" on the player piano in the back room of the beachhouse; and Arthur's renditions of "Love's Old Sweet Song" and "Waltz Me Around Again, Willie," to the latter of which Sid and Lily danced after he had won her forgiveness for the umpteenth time); perfect period costumes, complete with dusters and goggles, by Jane Greenwood; and a set brimming with wicker and gingham and chintz that featured, through the tall windows at the rear, a gorgeous view of the harbor and far shore beyond the house-wide porch. And the performers, when sober, moved with such ease around the central pedestal table with lace cloth and the other furniture that an aura of verisimilitude was quickly established and sustained throughout the evening. And the one exterior scene--a wharf surrounded by catkins and bathed by a hazy moon, with a rocking boat in front of the wharf--made effective use of David Budries' "sound design" of lapping water and a clock bell In the distance.
Aside from the showbizz fanny-wagging of Jane Macfie's maid as she gauchely set the table for dinner and the excessive pacing and posing of Richard as he awaited Muriel's lakeside visit, the acting was superb. Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst were stately and amusing as O'Neill's idealized parents; he in light grey, a strong and appropriate contrast to the conservative black of the upright intruder, McComber; she in an elegant coiffure that smacked of Bea Arthur's Maude. The only weakness in either performance was in Nat's excessively protracted "birds and bees" scene with Richard. (I had the feeling, throughout, that the pacing was a bit too slow, as if Brown were seeking Chekhovian depths that just aren't there.) William Cain's McComber was prude-perfect (he picked Richard's poems from his small billfold as if they were a dead rat) and Annie Golden made a star turn of the small-town seductress.
Raphael Sbarge was the most believable and three-dimensional Richard I have ever seen. He was touching in his literary naiveté ("Reading Gaol" was pronounced "Reeding Goal"); powerful In his tipsy barroom recitation; pathetically inept in the fight that followed; gawkily ardent in the moonlight tryst; plausibly polluted in his weak-kneed return home, his collar loose and his pant knee ripped; and positively radiant in the last scene, as he sat in profile on the porch rail, dimly illuminated by a beneficent moon. Mr. Sbarge is an actor to watch; he will soon join his fellow stars in renown.
Perhaps the best acting of all was that of the other "couple," Sid and Lily, played by George Hearn and Elizabeth Wilson. Ms. Wilson made it clear that Lily's pursed smile at Sid's promise to reform was long-practiced and likely to recur; that she was both uncomfortable in her role as live-in spinster and simultaneously content with her lot as long-suffering mother hen. Mr. Hearn was not only the best singer I have ever encountered as Sid; he was also able to elicit fresh laughs from the dinner scene. First he attacked the soup with knife and fork, then stood and drank it from the bowl, afterward licking both his fingers and the bowl. And finally, with a sprig of parsley behind his ear, he conducted the singalong with his lobster, earned one more rejection from Lily, and woozily departed. His later tears earned Lily's perennial forgiveness, but one felt that Sid, too, was quite content with the relationship as it was. Mr. Hearn's Sid was a major contribution to a thoroughly delightful production.
Ben Edwards' set for Long Day's Journey used the same windows at the rear and the scene beyond them, which moved from morning sunlight, through afternoon fog, to black of night, thanks to Jennifer Tipton's exceptional lighting design. The interior, however, was quite different, with a door at our right, a small parlor at the left-rear, and the addition of a second, central bookcase with a framed engraving of Shakespeare above it. The furnishings were much sparer, mostly wicker, and one could understand Mary's discontent with her virtual imprisonment in such a bare, unlovely house.
The central table was used most tellingly to reveal the slow disintegration of the family unit. In the first scene, the four Tyrones sat around it in initial camaraderie, until the conversation led first to Edmund's moving away, and then to Mary's. By the family's return from lunch, tensions had cancelled all such unity. As they entered, the four spread about the room--Edmund at a desk to our left, Jamie at an upstage-center window, James at the downstage-right screen door, and Mary, alone, at the table. The family, except for moments of confession in the last act, was now irreversibly fragmented. Mr. Quintero knows all the Tyrones to their depths, and the blocking, throughout, revealed the tensions among them as effectively as their words did.
It may be that the rigors of repertory are too much for any actors, given the wrenching revelations of Long Day's Journey, which I saw on an evening after the senior Tyrones had spent more than four afternoon hours as the senior Millers. That may explain the low energy level of the parents. Ms. Dewhurst was stately in stance and voice as Mary. From her first entrance in earrings and a silver-gray gown, to her final return in a blue-yellow nightgown and trailing her wedding dress, she was consistently erect and regal. But there was little passion in her delivery. The first-scene discussion with Edmund was underplayed; her "I hate doctors" speech, which Katharine Hepburn shouted almost too loudly in the Lumet film, was so quiet here as to be virtually inaudible; and the final scene, except for her savage "No" when Edmund forces the truth on her that he has consumption, was too bland to be excused as the effect of morphine.
Mr. Robards was easily the best of the men in a performance far superior to his James in Brooklyn in the 1970s. He has mellowed into the part without losing any of the old-school mannerisms and broad gestures of the stodgy star James Tyrone has become. His fourth-act confession was touching in its honesty, and his earlier after-lunch scene with his wife--hugging her as he says, "For the love of God, Mary"--was, in its earnest intensity, the most moving moment in the production. Campbell Scott had a rich, deep voice as Edmund but little more, even though he is Ms. Dewhurst's real-life son; and Jamey Sheridan exuded little of the spineless alcoholic in Jamie. He could trip, exhort and tongue-lash on cue, but he never succeeded in persuading one that he was anything but a talented if inexperienced actor.
All in all, the casting of the junior roles and the seeming exhaustion of one of the senior performers prevented Quintero's heart-felt interpretation of O'Neill's greatest tragedy to soar. It was a worthy centennial tribute to O'Neill, but one that needed more work before it could equal the triumphant rightness of Ah, Wilderness!
-- Frederick C. Wilkins
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