Eugene O'Neill

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Long Day's Journey Into Night

Reviewed by Yvonne Shafer


Long Day's Journey Into Night, directed by Robert Falls.  Plymouth Theatre, New York, New York, May 6-August 31, 2003.

Eugene O'Neill’s play is so familiar to us now that I could not help but wonder if it could be as engrossing as it must have to audiences in the mid-twentieth century. Most of us have at least seen it. I have seen it several times in English, once in German and I played Mary and later ran lights on a production. What a great thing to be able to say that I hung on every word. At the end of the play my first thought was “What a play! What a fantastic idea for a play!”

The long awaited cast did not disappoint. Whereas it has often been Tyrone’s play, this time it seemed to be Mary’s because of the performance by Vanessa Redgrave. However, it was certainly played as an ensemble piece, which is the only way it can work. (Fredric March and Florence Eldridge chose not to perform the play in London because they feared the actors might not be as good as Robards and Dillman.) Redgrave played the role as an aging lady, both terms important. The last time I saw the play the actress romped about the stage like vulgar woman just home from aerobics class. Brian Dennehy, who has acted extensively in O'Neill’s plays, looked more like Hickey than the handsomest matinee idol in America. But he carried himself well, had a dazzling smile and Irish charm and a good voice which made him convincing quoting Shakespeare. Robert Sean Leonard was very moving in this as he recently was in Iceman. Of course, Jason Robards has cast his shadow over the role of Jamie. Even those of us who did not see him have read reviews and seen him in other things. Philip Seymour Hoffman seemed a little uncertain in the early acts, but became steadily stronger, performing his drunk scene with success which moved the audience to applause. Fiana Toibin playing Cathleen, was cast as O'Neill would have chosen: an Irish actress trained in Dublin. All together the actors created a very Strindbergian aura, a very physical production, and a full sense of the comedy in the play.

The Strindbergian love/hate relationship is often discussed, but productions of O'Neill often emphasize the hate more than the love. After all, why did the four O'Neills stay together if not for the love? It would be easy to say that Dennehy’s love for his wife was the most significant part of this staging as he was so often holding her and kissing her and it was really so believable that he loved her dearly, as he said. However, the love between the others was also obvious. Jamie’s love for his mother was clear in his physical movement, but also his angry hate was clear in, for example, the moment in which he grabbed her arms from behind and forced her to look in a mirror. Similarly, Redgrave’s affectionate embracing and kissing of Edmund contrasted forcefully with her out and out physical attack on him at one point, hitting him and pulling his hair. At another point she attacked Tyrone with her fists until he was able to stop her. As performed, the hate was apparent, but the strong love was absolutely clear and emphasized by the physicality of the actors.

Comedy in the plays of O'Neill has presented a problem for critics, actors, and directors. Some have simply been reluctant to admit that the dour O'Neill would write comedy and others may have felt it was beneath the dignity of the great tragedian. Sensitive directors appreciate the presence and the intention of comedy in the plays. As Michael Kahn told me, “I think you should find as much comedy in O'Neill as you can. (Laughing.) He was an Irishman after all. There is some comedy. He’s a great playwright, after all, so he knew what to do. The audience needs that. I think a couple of laughs in O'Neill are really helpful. I mean Greek tragedies have funny parts, too.” Obviously, director Robert Falls would agree with this. Of course the first act with the story of the pigs was funny, and naturally lines such as that about Shakespeare being an Irish Catholic were funny. I was reminded of O'Neill’s comments about the comedy in Iceman:

It’s struck me as time goes on, how something funny, even farcical, can suddenly without any apparent reason, break up into something gloomy and tragic . . . . a sort of unfair non sequitur, as though events, as though life, were being manipulated just to confuse us; a big kind of comedy that doesn’t stay funny very long. I’ve made some us of it in The Iceman. The first act is hilarious comedy, I think, but then some people may not even laugh. At any rate, the comedy breaks up and the tragedy comes on.

But, as in a good production of Iceman, there is comedy and irony in the later acts and it was so fine to see the comedy in this production and to hear the audience’s response to it.

The production was wonderfully enhanced by the fine lighting design by Brian MacDevitt with shafts of light piercing the darkness alternating with the bright light of the morning and the blast of lights as they are turned on at night. Similarly, the sound effects which were so important to O'Neill were effectively used by Richard Woodbury. The offstage noises of piano, movement above, and foghorn created a haunted mood throughout the play.

The setting by Santo Loquasto had a fine ground plan allowing a view of the porch and the dining room and the possibility of movement around the stairway. After admiring his designs for many years, I find it hard to say that ultimately I did not like the look of the set. It was described positively as having a monumental barracks look. The living room was backed by dark, rather rough looking, planks rising up far above the actors. My objection is based on two elements. First, I think the setting should suggest a closeness and a kind of imprisonment for the four central characters as in a setting for No Exit—although obviously not that compressed. Second, this setting reinforced Mary’s assertion that the house was cheap and unattractive and never could have been a home. One might disagree with this on the grounds of the look of the house which still exists in New London. More importantly is the question of balance in the play. Artist that he was, O'Neill knew that the family relationship needed balance to create an effective play. So he exaggerated the facts about his father and money. Tyrone remarks several times that Mary doesn’t really believe all she says in criticism of him. The house, it seems to me, should not be unattractive, but simply not luxurious. This, of course, in contrast to the mansions of actors such as Edwin Forrest and William Gillette.

Often revivals of plays focus on a concept of the director, as if that would be the only reason for a revival, and the director’s hand is very much in evidence. Falls stated, “I don’t think you should be aware of the director at all in this piece, although I have very, very strong feelings about it.” His sensitivity and appreciation of the play were evident throughout. There were so many moments when the stage picture seemed exactly right and called out to be photographed, but these were not stagy or artificial, simply marvelous. At some points I thought how fine it would be if Redgrave made a particular gesture or would move away from the men, and then it just happened. It all seemed so right without startling effects or attention to some clever idea.

The production has just been nominated for seven Tony awards and one critic has called it the production of the decade. The production is selling out, as Iceman did recently, proving how wrong the people are who say O'Neill isn’t popular. The run, only until August, will give people once again the opportunity to see the power of the combination of O'Neill and great actors.

Yvonne Shafer is Professor of Speech, Communication Sciences and Theatre at St. John's University, and author of Performing O'Neill: Conversations with Actors and Directors.


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