Every family has its particular collection of emotional dynamics, some of which propel it forward, some of which send it racing back in time, and others that hold everyone involved more or less locked in place, with a loop of discordant voices sounding the same song over, and over, and over again.
‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ Recommended When: Through April 10 Where: Court Theater, 5535 S. Ellis Tickets: $45-$65 Info: www.CourtTheatre.org Run time: 3 hours and 30 minutes, with two intermissions
The Tyrones, the family anatomized by Eugene O’Neill in his quasi-autobiographical play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (written in 1942, but neither published nor produced until 1956, three years after his death), is a prime example of just how such dynamics work. And now, in the Court Theatre revival of this landmark drama —directed by David Auburn (the playwright best known for his 2001 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, “Proof”), that familial chemistry plays out with unusual clarity and straightforwardness, and a distinct lack of sentimentality.
As its title suggests, O’Neill’s saga unspools within the course of one long August day in 1912, when the family is gathered at the large, ramshackle seaside Connecticut cottage they all, in one way or another, call home.
For 65-year-old patriarch James Tyrone (Harris Yulin) —whose impoverished Irish immigrant youth left him obsessively money-conscious despite a financially rewarding acting career — this is his only true home.For his wife, Mary (Mary Beth Fisher) —whose doting father and convent school upbringing did not prepare her for life on the road with an actor —the house has been a source of constant unhappiness and embarrassment, and just another place to be lonely. She sees it as hardly better than the shabby hotel rooms in which the couple and their two sons lived for years as she followed her husband, who performed the theatrical “vehicle” that made him rich. And she holds James responsible for her morphine addiction, which began when a second-rate doctor prescribed pain-killers after her second-born child died in infancy.
As it happens, Mary has just returned from her latest rehab treatment. She clearly senses she is being “watched” by her sons for signs of a relapse. Not surprisingly, her sons have major problems of their own.James Tyrone, Jr. (Dan Waller), is a ne’er-do-well actor who has turned to a life of dissipation and alcohol despite his early talent. Edmund (Michael Doonan), is a gifted but penniless poet and wanderer, newly diagnosed with consumption. The brothers are close yet contentious. And as with all the relationships in this family, the intensity of love can quickly morph into resentment.
In a real sense, O’Neill has composed “Long Day’s Journey” as if it were a fugue, with each of the character’s essential motifs returning, with slight variations, over and over again. Both the parents and sons know these familiar tunes all too well, but this does not prevent them from repeating them, elaborating on them, mocking them.The four actors here are notable for the way they avoid the usual histrionics and make it seem as if they are just living the life to which they’ve long been accustomed.
Yulin, clearly sensing that his glory days are behind him, and somewhat weary, still loves his wife, and knows what is happening to her again, even if he can’t admit it. Fisher, whose elegance is enough to suggest just what a beauty Mary was in her youth (when James was a matinee idol), gives an expert rendering of a woman who knows exactly what she is doing —and why —even when high, with shifts from agitation to calm that are superbly finessed.
The brothers possess an earthy realism and charm, even at their most poetic or inebriated. Waller is all fire as he tells his younger brother how he purposefully corrupted him (though his love for Edmund is palpable), and his story of bedding a “fat whore” out of pity is superbly done. Doonan, slender and handsome, keeps Edmund’s consumptive cough at a minimum, and brings a quiet resignation to his situation. In addition, the two brothers’ interactions with their parents are just different enough to suggest which is each one’s favorite child.
All the Tyrones have disappointed both themselves and each other. And this would not matter half so much were they not bound so tightly —for better and for worse —by love. And that, in the end, is the tragedy of it all for O’Neill.