Eugene O'Neill. Brevity is not his strongpoint, regardless he remains one of the all-time greats of the American theatre. This Saturday, Ben, a fellow LA theatre artist, joined me for a three hour and twenty minute three-act cornerstone of American drama at the Geffen Playhouse, directed by Jeanie Hackett. Ben had never seen or read Long Day's Journey Into Night but was really looking forward watching the show, as he was also a big fan of the venue. I confided in him that although I had taken a semester-long course dedicated to the playwright's extensive body of work...the plays were so long on the page that I hadn't even finished the play I had presented on, More Stately Mansions. I also admitted that I had smuggled in a blueberry muffin, hidden deep in my rattan bag, as I had literally prepped for a long day's journey at the theatre, in which the play might be so long that I could grow faint with hunger.
However, the play moved along with great progress, during which neither of our tummies grumbled. We laughed. I almost cried. And overall I was very impressed.
EDMUND: I'm like Mama. I can't help liking you, in spite of everything.
TYRONE: I might say the same of you.
At intermission Ben noted that he hoped James Tyrone, fully realized by the infamous Alfred Molina, would get a little more action in the third act, as he wanted to see him do more in the course of the story. I replied that I thought Molina was already doing an excellent job. In this play, we watch two sons and a father deal with their mother's severe drug addiction. They all handle her suffering, her deception and her love in a different way, which I think is one of the main reasons the story stands strong as one of America's most timeless tragedies. When a family member is struggling in a way that does not have an immediate solution, do we ridicule? Do we ignore? Do we facilitate? Do we listen? Judging by the way James reacts to Mary's continuous defenses and his turning a blind eye to her drug use in their own home, the patriarch holds somewhat of a defeated stance on the issue. He has tried. He has supported his wife emotionally and financially, put her through rehab and loved her continuously throughout many family trials. So, even though he may not have as many lines as the other characters in the first two acts, I thought Molina did an incredible job of showing James Tyrone's defeat through his stillness in just keeping out of the issue verbally. I think we all know a few men like this. Blows are thrown out more than once that James suffered from alcoholism, but even if that was true, he doesn't seem to be struggling with it in any type of dangerous way at the time the play takes place. On the contrary, he delivers an incredibly beautiful, poinient monologue in act IV on why he might admit to being the miser his sons constantly accuse him of being. It was an honor to watch him play this role live on stage.
Jane Kaczmarek plays Mary Tyrone in a delivery style very different than what I would have ever expected from this character on the page (and compared with Kathrine Hepburn in the 1962 film version), but it kind of works. Although I agree with Charles McNulty's assessment that Kaczmarek's interpretation is certainly not as delicate as some of the great actresses to play this role before her, I felt that her more commanding delivery spoke to the strong willed woman hiding amidst a lifetime of suppression to man's asking. In this kind of crazy way, Mary Tyrone has never really had control of her body. Her mother had her all lined up to become a nun from an early age, where she would sacrifice sexual pleasure to better the will of God. Then she is swept away by the accomplished Irish actor James Tyrone. To the embarrassment of his sons, he has no problem describing how he found her to be a fantastic lover. That of course lead to childbirth, one that would result in in the scarring tragedy of the death of a child, another that would result in her very drug addiction. Her body has been at the mercy of others, out of her own control for nearly her entire life. So for that reason, I found Kaczmarek's more forthright approach refreshing. Mary is so exhausted by pain and disillusion that the drugs are bringing out the truth to the lies she has been told her entire life. Or, at least they're telling her that. And she's not having it anymore. She doesn't care how she sounds and in her own way, she is also defeated.
Although we were very impressed with the set design in collaboration with the lighting design of the play, we were a bit confused by the quotes and projection photography going on between scenes. I recognized some photos of the actors, the playwright, what I think was the playwright as a child (?), and the rest I was unsure. It was interesting and made me question why it was happening, but in the aftermath I don't understand how it added to the story of the play. Maybe because this show holds some vaguely autobiographical elements to O'Neill. I also failed to find the significance of the quotes/lines being read during these transitions.
One of O'Neill's greatest strengths as a writer lies in his portrayal of the family struggle. Financially, physically, romantically and allegiance-wise, he never has a problem dramatizing a problem in a theatrically engaging way where we can easily create parallels into our own lives. And this play is the mac-daddy of alllllllllllllllllllllllll that. So when I ask myself what the play makes me want to change about myself, I go back to my family. (There seems to be a theme of family standing out in the theatre I've seen this month. Maybe God's trying to tell me something.) There is so much heartbreaking, internalized blame in the Tyrone family, and although my experience may be different, I've been there. As the audience we have the authority to sit back and see the bigger picture and how some of the accusations are wrong, or right, or both. I think we've all tried to call someone out without understanding all the details from their side of the fence. Sometimes alcohol can help facilitate this opportunity, sometimes not in the most positive way. The play gives me empathy for friends and relatives of mine either struggling with addiction or struggling with a loved with facing addiction. Both stances are incredibly complicated and once again, the theatre makes me want to be a better listener, a better attempted understander, to be a help to those struggling around me. To know whether I need to step up and take action, or simply be there, to give love and support through stillness, to lend an ear.
Don't do drugs.
Long Day's Journey Into Night runs at the Geffen Playhouse through March 18th. I would encourage you to catch this dynamically acted production of a timeless American classic.