Familial love is often, ironically, a dark and lonely terrain, filled with heartaching rage and bitter resentment. Occasional moments of tender forgiveness are sometimes all that keep families in love, all that keep families together. Such is the case with the Tyrones, the semiautobiographical family of Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day's Journey into Night, the seminal American play in which O'Neill painfully explores his own family's destructive love for one another. This "play of old sorrow," as the author himself put it, is now being given a quiet and strangely moving revival on the downstairs Arena stage at the Alley Theatre.
The uncut version is long and takes some stamina, both from the actors who perform it and the audience that watches it. This production, which starts with the easy energy of a summer rain, slowly gathers its strength until Act Three delivers the full storm of rage and loss that has shaped and created this family. Indeed, when Mary Tyrone, played with tremendous subtlety by Ellen Burstyn, delivers her last line, the moment is one of the most stunning I've experienced in the theater.
As the title suggests, the play occurs over the course of one long day and night. We follow Mary Tyrone's descent into morphine-induced madness and watch as her husband, James (David Selby), along with her sons Jamie (Ian Kahn) and Edmund (Rick Stear), suffer their own sorts of madness as they stand helplessly watching Mary float away from them.
The men of the family have their own addictions to deal with. They drink whiskey (a lot of whiskey); they rage; they wallow in self-pity. James, the father, lives in constant disappointment with his career as a sellout actor, with his sons who end up ne'er-do-well drinkers and with his "drug fiend" wife, whom he loves more than anything. Jamie, the oldest son, is a self-destructive drunk stuck in an ancient, rancorous rage against his father and mother. He defines himself as a cynic, announcing, after an inebriated night in a whorehouse, that his "pinnacle of success" is to be "the lover of the fat woman in Barnum & Bailey's circus." Edmund, the youngest son (and O'Neill's stand-in), is a renegade poet who leaves his family to travel the world, only to return when he finds himself too sick to go on.
Edmund represents the family's lost hope. As the night progresses, we discover that it was Edmund's painful birth in a "cheap hotel" that began Mary's morphine addiction. And Mary can't help but blame Edmund, along with the "ignorant quack" who prescribed the morphine.
But though Edmund's birth signals Mary's and the family's eventual downfall, Edmund's talent and poetic tenderness are all that articulate the family's wounded love for one another, and he is finally and ironically the family's last hope for any kind of success. When, during the course of this long day, they discover that his illness is not just a summer cold but consumption, their fragile hopes come crashing down.
Though no one in this family can face this disappointment alone, they are so estranged from each other that they have no one to turn to for solace. Mary, who has just returned from a sanatorium, falls back on the only thing she knows that will take away "all the pain." James, who can do nothing but plead uselessly with his wife to stop, ends up attempting to drink himself into oblivion rather than face the day of loss. Jamie runs off, soused, to the whorehouse, "ready for a weep on any old womanly bosom." And Edmund spends his night walking on the beach near the ocean that represents the only place where "there is meaning" in a world where most of the time "you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason."
This world made up of pain, loss, shame and regret is difficult to watch and would be almost unbearable were it not for the depth of feeling and the surprising comic moments these actors manage to find in this play. Ellen Burstyn's Mary is the center of this production and a wondrously complex character. She is at once the coquette of days long gone and a heartbroken middle-aged woman. She remembers and cites every grievance she holds against her family, but somehow she manages to forgive even as she accuses. As the day slips into night and Mary drops deeper and deeper into her private interior world, she regresses slowly back in time until she arrives at her girlhood, back before her marriage. She giggles at her own enchanted memories as her hands quietly dance before her like strange birds with lives of their own. But she also remembers her dead baby, the lonely nights she spent waiting on her actor husband, only to have him show up in a drunken puddle at their hotel doorway. She blames herself and everyone around her for the irretrievable past. Her confusion and inability to bring the past into the present register on her lovely face as almost childlike frustration. Burstyn's performance is graceful and careful; it moves from moments of wicked fun to deeply felt grief and humiliation in the smallest of moments. And it gets better and better as the night goes along.
In fact, all the actors get better as the night gets more sorrowful. David Selby, who started off Thursday night's performance somewhat stiffly, has a marvelous moment in Act Three when James Tyrone, the hardhearted father who loves his sons deeply in spite of himself, confronts Edmund, and they learn to forgive each other, if only for a night.
Likewise, Rick Stear's Edmund begins to sail in Act Three, when he must accept his father as a deeply flawed human being. Edmund's own illness, brought on by his morbid enchantment with death and self-destructive behavior, brings him home, where he is forced to accept his past. As Mary tells us, the past is the present and the future.
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And while Ian Kahn's Thursday night performance was perhaps not as polished nor as subtle as the rest of the cast's, he was convincing as the frustrating lunkhead Jamie. He is the lost son, forever unredeemable, the one who saw too much and perhaps felt too deeply.
The play -- considered one of the most important in the American canon, and certainly the defining play of O'Neill's career -- is terribly hard to produce and to watch. These characters don't behave well, and nothing good happens in the end.
It is about misery and loss and the fact that we must live with loss, as hard as it is. The Alley's production, quiet and oddly gentle, gets to the heart of this sad truth and delivers it, in the end, with terrific force.
Long Day's Journey into Night plays through March 29 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 228-8241.