If they'd been written today, the Tyrone clan of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night would be just another dysfunctional family whose shrieking harangues would be best appreciated by a Jerry Springer audience. The more refined crowd that came to see this infamous family at the Herberger Theater Center last weekend--first-night patrons who have almost certainly dropped in on the Tyrones before--stayed to cheer Arizona Theatre Company's stately production of O'Neill's best-known play.
More than anything else, Long Day's Journey Into Night--arguably the greatest Great Tragedy in the American theatrical canon--stands as an example of how the dramatic arts have evolved over the past few decades. With the exception of Edward Albee and perhaps Tony Kushner, American playwrights have learned to deliver dramas that fit into tight, two-hour time slots and that feature more flash pots than firm conviction. (I'm not forgetting Terrence McNally, whose pensive plays routinely run long chiefly because he doesn't seem to know when to stop writing.) Nearly no one's delivering this kind of thunderous psychodrama anymore--and few contemporary directors are courageous enough to bring new life to masterworks like this one.
Long Day's Journey Into Night is O'Neill's most autobiographical play, a showpiece that reveals the tormented real-life parents and brothers who inspired most of his work and clearly the roles in this play: father and former matinee idol James; Mary, the shrewish, morphine-addicted mother; Jamie, the older, alcoholic brother; and Edmund, O'Neill's vision of himself as the victim of his family's lies and deceit.
The play, written as an anniversary gift for his wife in 1941, earned O'Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize--his fourth--despite his stipulations that the piece was not to be published until 25 years after his death and that it was never to be produced. In 1956, only three years after O'Neill died, his widow arranged for the play to be staged--some say as an act of revenge on her in-laws. Several well-regarded productions of Long Day's Journey have graced the Broadway stage since, though few directors have tampered much with O'Neill's own scripted stage directions of the play.
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Marshall Mason, whose chores as professor of theater at Arizona State University have kept him from staging an Equity show during the four years he's been in the Valley, has made that rare directorial exception. He's experimented with O'Neill's dark drama, clarifying some of the repetitive dialogue and summoning a stage full of fine performances from a topnotch cast. At just over three hours, Mason's is a faster-paced Long Day's Journey that's as much a tribute to O'Neill and to classical tragedy as it is a superb staging of this esteemed play.
Without losing perspective on O'Neill's unkind intentions toward his family, Mason presents a somewhat more sentimental view of the terrible Tyrones. The result is that, after watching these sad, scary people scream at one another for an entire evening, we leave feeling exhilarated--and more than a little sorry for the much-lauded O'Neill.
Mason renews our interest in the Tyrones with several oddly effective choices. When the family gathers for one of several shout fests, Mason overlaps the rough rhythms of O'Neill's dialogue. He knows that, after the exposition of the first act, it's less important that we hear the repeated incriminations than to experience the violence and volume that resonate from them.
Where the script spotlights the relationship between Mary and Edmund, Mason focuses on another parent-child pairing: James and Edmund spend a good part of Act Three squared off over the none-too-fatherly conduct that feeds the family's addictions. As directed by Mason, the scene reveals James as a lonely misfit with a bankrupt life of his own, and makes this father-son relationship the troubling heart of the play.
Ruth Reid's Mary is brighter and more benevolent than we've seen her before--sort of Mary Tyrone Lite--a fact that makes her more monstrous in later scenes, and makes her final speech all the more moving.
Reid's brimming eyes and little-girl voice, as she recalls the convent she gave up to marry an actor, suggest a forgiveness for her transgressions that O'Neill's text doesn't necessarily convey.
The trio of actors who portray the Tyrone men are above reproach: Lawrence Pressman is utterly persuasive as James Sr., a blustery windbag whose delicate drunken scenes are by turns shocking and amusing.
Not every actor can accomplish what Kim Bennett does here as Jamie, maintaining our sympathy while maligning everyone who crosses his path. And I don't see how anyone can fail to be moved by Jason Kuykendall's Edmund, a graceful and varied performance that belies the actor's youth and still-limited stage experience.
Mason's theater-world connections also have an impact on the look of this production: Ming Cho Lee, one of the world's foremost scenic designers, created the magnificent Tyrone summer home seen here.
Combined with Laura Crow's costume design, all rumpled off-whites and pale tans, the overall look is of a charcoal sketch or a shadowy tintype come loudly to life.
I'd like to round up all the folks who've told me over the past couple of years that there's "no really good theater in Phoenix" and bus them over to the Herberger to see this production. Right here in our own little backwater we have a legendary Broadway director at the helm of a hugely significant piece of theater, with a set designed by a world-renowned scenic designer. The opening-night audience, at least, seemed to know it had witnessed a remarkable piece of theater, and welcomed it with long ovations and shouts louder than any Tyrone could muster.
Arizona Theatre Company's Long Day's Journey Into Night continues through Saturday, November 28, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.
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