Eugene O'Neill

Menu Bar

Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the
Northwest Actors Studio, Seattle

Reviewed by Stephen A. Black


Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Susan Bradford.  Northwest Actors Studio, Seattle, Washington, April 8-30, 2005.

I was invited to attend, on Sunday, May 1st, the final performance of a very interesting production of O’Neill’s great “New London – family play” (as the playwright called it in his “Work Diary”).  The casting was unusual in that only one of the actors – Dan Conklin who played Jamie –  physically resembled  either O’Neill’s character descriptions or the members of the playwright’s family on which the characters were based.  Susan Bradford who directed and conceived the production has had a deep and lifelong interest in O’Neill which is reflected in her dedication of the production to the memory of her late mother and father who loved O’Neill.  The Northwest Actors Studio is a teaching organization for the theatre arts.  Sets, lighting and other technical aspects of the production were done by members of the Studio.  The theatre itself is tiny.  I believe I heard someone say that it seats ninety, but it looks smaller.

The set is a single, largish room with the breakfast table against the back wall.  There is a low coffee table near the front-center with two chairs behind it and one at each end; here is where most of the action takes place.  There is a narrow love seat against the stage-right wall.  James Tyrone, Sr, was played by Jim Hamerlinck, a very tall, handsome man who looks to be in his forties, and even with makeup,  looked no more than fifty.  (It should be mentioned that in a silent movie of James O’Neill playing Monte Cristo, made in 1914 when he was about sixty, James looks and moves like a very much younger man.)  Mr. Hamerlinck resembles James Tyrone in at least two important respects: he has a beautiful voice and the assured  presence of a natural leading actor.  Mary was played, very well, by Diana Harris, a graduate of the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts.  Much  of her work has been done in New York, I gather, including a production she recently directed of The Altos: Like the Sopranos Only Lower, which is still playing on the East Side.  Ms. Harris stepped into the O’Neill production in the third week of rehearsal after another actress had to withdraw.

She is not the fragile-looking actress often cast in the role, and can be physically intimidating, as she is with Cathleen at the beginning of Act Three when they have just returned from their ride to the drug store. When she corners Cathleen on the love seat, Cathleen gradually becomes panicky and flees as Mary’s intrusiveness becomes evident.  Cathleen was played perfectly by Tara Sinden who recently graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham and is finding work in many theatres in the Northwest.  Dustin Engstrom, who played Edmund, does not look at all like the gaunt, consumptive, immature, would-be poet that O’Neill himself was in 1912, although, like Eugene, he is several inches taller than his older brother; but unlike O’Neill, he is husky and strong-looking.  But his physical presence did not prevent him from showing his great neediness: for his father to be a man not only he but the town must respect, for his brother to love him as much as he loves and needs Jamie, and for his mother to be his mother, rather than a schoolgirl with a crush on a teacher or a matinee idol, a mother who flirts all-too-sexually with her sons, and at the same time, infantilizes them.  Acts One and Two were played with only a momentary break between them.  A fifteen minute intermission separated Acts Two and Three, and there was a five minute break before Act Four.

For the first fifteen minutes or so I was distracted by not finding what I expected in the appearance and “persons” of the actors, but the distraction gradually lessened as the actors convinced me that they thoroughly understood the lines they spoke and the characters they played, that they were up to the emotionally and intellectually complicated demands and interactions the characters have with, and make upon each other.  They show us the patterns of attracting and repelling that bind them all to each other.  Like the performers in the 1994 Stratford, Ontario Festival production, the most fully satisfactory production I have seen, the Actors Studio characters were all very likeable, if also hateful from time to time.  That they make the audience like them as well as feel all the other feelings they evoke, makes the play all the more poignant for our liking them. This seems to me critical for the play to succeed. Only when one sees how much there is to admire in the Tryones as they are, how they need and love each other,  and above all, how dependent they are on each other – only then can one begin to understand why none of them, especially the sons, can attempt to make any part of a life that is independent of the others.  All of them know that without any one of them, the whole house of Tyrone may collapse like cards.

In a conversation after the play with the audience, actors and other people of the theatre, I was impressed with the sophistication and complexity of people’s understanding of the play – its demands and rewards.  It seems to me that nothing is more vital for the health of the theatre than for companies with limited funds but with talent, experience and intelligence to put on serious productions of the great landmarks of the drama. Showing that one can create a production that gets right the large and small meanings of a great play without spending much money seems infinitely valuable.  I would very much like to see companies like The Actors Studio perform A Touch of the Poet, a play that I think has not yet been performed nearly often enough for us to have a very clear sense of its qualities and possibilities, as well as some of O’Neill’s earlier plays.  This is the kind of theatre that can potentially create revealing productions of great plays from the past that remain more or less obscure in our time – plays like Oedipus at Colonos, Bakkhai, the Oresteia, The Winter’s Tale, as well as worthy plays of the last century and a half which we are still trying to grasp.

© Copyright 2005 Stephen A. Black.  Stephen Black is Professor Emeritus at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia and author of Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy.


© Copyright 1999-2008