Monday, May 31, 2010

On-Stage: Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Mother is addicted to morphine, elder brother spends all his money on prostitutes, and everyone drinks too much. Such are the family values of the Tyrones, who are thought to bear a strong resemblance the family of their creator, Nobel Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill. The posthumous winner of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is widely considered the most significant work of O’Neill oeuvre, both for artistic and biographical reasons, making its return to the New York stage a happy event, thanks to the York Shakespeare Company, whose revival officially opened this weekend at the Lion Theater in Theatre Row.

The Tyrones have issues. The youngest brother, Edmund, has a suspiciously persistent cough. His father and older brother Jamie suspect consumption, but he and his mother are in denial. The family is also not unduly concerned about how she would respond to stressful news, given her history of morphine addiction. Though she seemed to shaken the monkey off her back, her recent erratic behavior starts to give the Tyrone men more cause for concern. These are the tribulations the Tyrone family will face, with help of generous alcoholic fortification, over the course of one fateful day.

While billed as a production of Journey clocking in at less than three hours, the Sunday matinee ran substantially longer. However, as a more important measurement, the York staging seemed much shorter than its actual running time. As directed by York founder and artistic director Seth Duerr, this staging seems more in tune with O’Neill’s frequently caustic dialogue, eschewing the atmosphere of decaying languor that often marked past productions. Indeed, the cast shows genuine relish for the playwright’s language, as when Duerr, who also appears as Jamie Tyrone, sneeringly dismisses his father’s roots in the Irish peasantry, who are apt to live in a “hovel on a bog.”

Employing the once dominant but now relatively scarce actor-manager model of theater administration, Duerr clearly selects material for the York that play to his strengths. Indeed, he perfectly embodies the dissipated, morally complex Jamie Tyrone. Yet, Journey is a true ensemble piece, with each member of the family getting more-or-less equal stage time (at least in this production). Fortunately, they are quite evenly matched, playing with and against each other to create some sharply compelling family drama. Bill Fairbairn nicely expresses the rigid rectitude of James Senior, while also conveying his own resentments. Alexander Harvey also effectively handles Edmund’s artistic sensitivity and physical fragility without wilting in comparison to the more outwardly dynamic characters.

Given the frankness of its subject matter—drug addiction (linked with possible mental illness), patronization of prostitutes, and raging alcoholism—Journey still feels surprisingly bold fifty-four years after its original stage debut. Indeed, that freshness is also a product of the York Company’s brisk staging and the cast’s muscular performances. An accessible and entertaining production, the York’s Journey should be a great introduction to O’Neill and his most celebrated play for those not previously familiar with his work. Now open, it runs at the Lion through June 12th.