Ever heard the expression “it’s funny because it’s true”? Well, the same can be said for pain. We laugh in shared recognition, but we also cringe and wince for the same reasons. Truth, it seems, is at the heart of all emotion. Every self-deprecating joke and every “no but I’m kidding” jab comes from a kernel of reality buried down there, sometimes in the pit of one’s subconscious, and sometimes right on the tip of one’s tongue. From time to time, there comes a story so raw, so brutal, so nakedly painful, that it simply must come from a place of truth. Such is the case with Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Stratford Puts On A Long Day’s Journey Into Night
A Family of Disappointment
The play centers around the Tyrone family, a mother, a father, and two sons, spending a day in their summer home. From the outset, it’s clear that something is wrong, be it the elder son’s alcoholism, the younger’s seemingly more and more serious chronic illness, the father’s cold-hearted competitiveness and frugal nature, or whatever secret the mom has. It starts with short tempers and characters talking behind one another’s backs, and only gets worse.
Seana McKenna, Stratford’s jewel, stars as Mary Cavan Tyrone, an Aunt May type figure with quivering, painful arthritis and a needling feeling that people are always looking at her the wrong way. She constantly talks about her hair, her once beautiful, now withered fingers, and how she’s gotten fat. Her dutiful sons and husband are quick to remind her that this isn’t true, that she’s beautiful, but she isn’t fishing for compliments. She’s shooting flares.
Meanwhile, Scott Wentworth shines as James Tyrone, a character only a shade warmer than Ebenezer Scrooge, and just as penny-pinching. He has had a long, tough life, and thinks he can browbeat motivation into his children. He quickly loses the audience’s sympathies and tries his darndest to never win you back.
And then there are the two boys, Gordon Miller and Charlie Gallant. Miller is terrific as James Tyrone Jr, a whoring drunk who never amounted to much and probably never wanted to. There is a scene towards the end where he has to play plastered, a deceptive challenge many actors trip over, but he manages to find the sadness and the comedy in every slurred syllable. And his deep, dark secret sent chills through the audience. Gallant plays the slimmer, fragile brother, a mama’s boy with deep wells of sympathy. He brings a kindness to the role that is heartbreaking to watch, but he too is not without his one-last-word jabs.
A Play That’s a Little Too Close to Home
The theme at Stratford this year was “freedom.” This theme manifests most often in the search of it, in plays like The Rocky Horror Show, but it can also exist for the lack of it. Long Day’s Journey Into Night is not so much about characters longing for freedom, or striving for it, so much as it’s about characters who acknowledge that they’ve never really had it; and if they did, they gave it up long ago. There are no happy endings here, and by the time the play is done, you’ll wonder if there ever were.
The play was written by Eugene O’Neill in the early 1940s but wasn’t published until 1956, three years after his death, whereupon it won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s not surprising. Throughout the story, I kept thinking, “move over Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf. THIS is the cattiest play of all time.” Remember every time you thought to yourself “ooo, I should have said this!” Well, that’s this play in its entirety. Comments so scathing, indictments so biting, that they must come from a place of authenticity.
Indeed, O’Neill never wanted the play produced. Even going so far as to say “I do not want Long Day’s Journey Into Night. That, as you know, is to be published twenty-five years after my death, but never produced as a play.” In that regard, this play has a lingering sense of scandal about it, like O’Neill forgot to clear his internet history before he died.
Sure enough, the parallels between O’Neill and the play in question become apparent almost immediately. Both had a cottage in Connecticut where they spent their summers. Both fathers were young actors. Both O’Neill’s older brother and the elder brother in the play were severe alcoholics. And notably O’Neill, like Eugene, was a sailor who wrote poetry and displayed chronic depression before being sent away to a sanatorium. The intimacy of the material is right there on stage. Whether or not that’s what O’Neill would ever have wanted is up for debate.
Last Word On Long Day’s Journey Into Night
The Studio is the most intimate setting in Stratford. It is a small theater with steep seating and at times it can feel as though you’re holding court over these characters with your godlike vertical. So it can be hard to tell if it is the set design by Peter Hartwell that gave the play it’s claustrophobic nature or merely the layout. The set is so familiar that I kept waiting for someone to break out a game of Monopoly that would never be finished. But this family doesn’t need to play Monopoly to be at one another’s throats. They do that just fine on their own.
My tragedy with this play began almost immediately when I pointed out the lovely red carpet on the stage to my wife. I said, “What do you think of a rug like that for our place?” and she replied, “That’s an old person’s rug, honey.” To which I murmured, “I don’t know, it seems homey to me.” Only to have Seana McKenna come on stage as an old lady and say “this has never been a home.” Damn, Stratford. Let a man enjoy his rugs!
Make no mistake, this is a long play, but it is a play that utilizes its length intelligently. You feel every passing minute and by the end, you feel as though a lifetime has passed, just like the mother. You feel as though you know every corner of this room and don’t wish to look at it any longer. You wish to see your home. Any home. A real home. You forget what a smile looks like. You forget that these people were ever happy. With a runtime of three hours and thirty-four minutes, I was certain that I would be rushing for the exit as soon as the lights came up. What I could not anticipate, is that I would be standing with uproarious applause.
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