One can’t help but empathize with renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill as his relationships evolve in this semi-autobiographical study of the iconic dysfunctional family. For this is a household marked by a mother addicted to prescription morphine, an alcoholic father and their two alcoholic sons – one a disillusioned youth being eaten alive by tuberculosis and the other hopelessly and bitterly immersed in his profligate ways – and a home situation where everybody has something to say – but nobody ever listens to anyone else. Slowly, all of the Tyrone family’s defenses are stripped away to reveal the intrinsic tragedy underneath. Adding to this, there’s enough guilt to go around for everyone to grab his share. And Eugene O’Neill called this home. It’s no small wonder that he requested that the powerful and painful play be kept hidden until 25 years after his death. Which, by the way, it wasn’t.
Written in 1941, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT was published and performed in 1956, first in Sweden and soon thereafter on Broadway, where it won Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor (Fredric March) and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the season. Why first in Sweden? Sweden had a long-standing love affair with O’Neill’s plays after he admitted to being influenced by famed Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Besides, O’Neill just happened to win the 1936 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first time the award had been conferred on an American playwright. In 1962, LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT was made into a film, and Katherine Hepburn was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Actress.
It’s 1912 in the Tyrone summer rental home in Connecticut. Papa James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) is a self-absorbed actor who learned early on that he could become fairly well-to-do by acting the same popular role his entire career. Now in his 60’s, penny-pinching James begins to wonder if his obsessive need to keep a step ahead of the poverty he endured while he was growing up cramped his professional growth in the theater. Mama Mary Tyrone (Lesley Manville), educated in a convent with dreams of becoming a devout nun as an adult, chucked it all when she met the handsome, debonair matinee idol James and heard his offer of marriage. Her decision to remain close to her man, however, may have led to some unfortunate consequences and lifelong aching regrets which she has drowned in drugs.
Have their two sons escaped the family’s curse? Hardly. Older son James Jr. (Rory Keenan) is an unsuccessful actor and very angry man who blames the world – and his parents – for his failures. He drowns in alcohol, gambling, and paid-for sex to deal with his sense of incompetence – and his mother’s ringing accusation that he deliberately murdered his baby brother when he was seven years old by exposing the toddler to measles. Younger son Edmund (Matthew Beard) – the baby’s replacement and O’Neill’s avatar in the tale – seems to be dying from consumption which his father wants treated in a state-run (and free) sanitarium. His coughing spells may serve to drown out the family’s constant squabbles and his own fear of death.
This Bristol Old Vic Production of LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is directed by Richard Eyre, who keeps the pace brisk in this piece which lasts just over three hours. In this day of short plays, often without intermissions, O’Neill’s drama is long and complex. At the same time, it allows for the slow stripping away of facades from each of the four principals – as well as the build-up of frustration and exasperation in the audience when there seems to be no end – or solution – in sight. O’Neill masterfully profiles each of his family members – and the uber-talented cast bites into the roles with fierce gusto.
Set and costume designer Rob Howell works a kind of magic as he keeps clothing in the era but places the characters into a timeless and apparently transparent shell with subtly mirrored walls – perhaps to help each look more deeply into himself. John Leonard’s sound and Pater Mumford’s lighting add to critical themes in the production. In fact, the entire production appeared to reflect long-standing homage to a great author.
LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT runs through July 1, 2018, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Fridays, at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Bram Goldsmith Theater is located in the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA. Tickets range from $35 to $105. For information and reservations, call 310-746-4000 or go online.