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In the five years since he’s moved to Ashland, director Christopher Liam Moore has distinguished himself bringing American modernist theater to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). He’s made full use of the Bowmer Theater, OSF’s hi-tech proscenium stage, to project the Deep South moodiness and gaudy personae of such classics as Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Streetcar Named Desire,” or Tracy Letts’ “August, Osage County.” But this season, tackling the uhr-text of American modernism, Eugene O’Niell’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Moore switches over to the Festival’s more intimate Thomas Theater.
The close, black-box space is an apt choice for this airless psychodrama. The play features just four characters (not counting a cameo housemaid). There’s virtually no action, only talk. It’s all confined to a fog-shrouded beach house on just one eponymously long and emotionally fraught calendar day. By the last scene, you feel you’ve just spent three and a half claustrophobic hours in a Tunnel of Love — dark, thwarted, destructively co-dependent love.
The play is so achingly autobiographic that O’Niell — although he considered it his best work — forbade its staging ever and even its publication until 25 years after his death. These strictures were promptly flouted by his literary executors in 1956, when he was barely three years in the grave. But the genesis of “Long Day’s Journey” goes back at least three decades before that, with a one-page family background summary he wrote in 1926 in the course of a psychoanalytic “talking cure” for alcoholism.
The therapeutic worksheet and the play both feature a tight-wad ham actor father, a morphine addicted mother, a consumptive would-be poet (representing the author himself) and a wastrel older brother. All four Tyrones (the O’Neill family’s onstage alter-egos) are thwarted in their individual aspirations.
The Irish immigrant father, who lucked out of a life of day labor and into a stage career, passed up his artistic promise for humdrum (but remunerative) matinee idol roles. His showbiz glamor turned the head of a naive convent schoolgirl, who forsook her Lace Irish gentility to follow him from gig to gig. Longing for more of a home than a series of hotel rooms and a summer beach cottage, she sinks into “neurasthenia” (a catch-all early 20th century term for “female nerves”) after the birth of her unwanted youngest child. A quack doctor prescribes morphine, which hooks her for life; she’s been on and off the wagon ever since.
She’s “clean” as the play opens, but the whole household fears she’s about to relapse, partly from denial about the immanent hospitalization of her youngest son, Edmund (O’Neill’s dramaturgic doppelganger). Out of sheer poetic romanticism, Edmund had shipped off to South America as a seaman, but wound up broken and suicidal in a harborside flop house. Straggling back home to the summer cottage, he’s now diagnosed with TB. That amounts to a sentence of long-term sanatorium confinement, with no assurance of survival — the karmic wages of his short, but assiduous, apprenticeship as a rake.
His tutor in debauchery has been his older brother, Jamie, who, in the play’s climactic dialogue, drunkenly confesses to Edmund that “on purpose…[I] put you wise” to drinking and whoring because “[I] never wanted you to succeed and make me look even worse by comparison.” But, Jamie hastens to add, “don’t get me wrong, Kid. I love you more than I hate you. My saying what I’m telling you now proves it.”
Emotional flip-flops like this are the main action in “Long Day’s Journey.” The four Tyrones alternately cajole, condole, accuse and excuse each other. By turns, they bluntly confess or blandly deny their sins and failings. These characters are so conflicted, so downright schizoid, that it sometimes feels as though there’s way more than four of them onstage.
In the hands of a lesser artist (including many later modernist imitators), such solipsism could sink into hackneyed psychobabble. O’Neill gets away with it, though, due to the acute sincerity of the play’s decades-long introspective genesis and its pioneer status as the foundational work of American theatrical modernism (with a hat-tip to such European precursors as Ibsen and Strindberg).
Even so, it takes a fine directorial touch to bring it off onstage. Moore — himself an actor and Irish, like his protagonists — handles the material with empathetic aplomb. It starts with the casting. Three of the four Tyrones are played by actors he’s used before in prior modernist offerings: Danforth Comins and Michael Winters anchored Moore’s previous Tennessee Williams productions, while Judith Marie Bergen headlined “August: Osage.” But in “Journey,” they each outdo even these previous star turns.
Comins’ eloquent Edmund is vulnerable yet brave, boyish yet doomed and old beyond his years. As the elder Tyrone, Winters presents a layered study of masks behind masks, a fustian old trooper secretly panicked about life’s missed cues. Bergen traces a heartbreaking arc from the aging coquette of the opening scenes to the ghostly somnambulist at the end.
The fourth Tyrone, Jamie, is played by Jonathan Haugen, in a first-time pairing with Moore. It’s a performance of staggering genius — literally, since in half his best scenes he’s too drunk to stay steady on his feet. But there’s an integrity to his incorrigibility; Haugen wraps himself in his debauchee’s dignity and manages to pluck his kernel of veritas out of his mulled pot of vino.
One hallmark of the best early modernists is their evocation of the rawest emotions in preternaturally elevated speech. Even in the midst of their mutual lacerations, the Tyrones retain a very Irish appreciation for lofty language. After Edmund’s long, lyrical evocation of his romantic seafaring life, for instance, his disapproving father still has to concede, despite himself, that “there’s the makings of a poet in you.”
Which Edmund self-deprecatingly denies: “I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke. He hasn’t even got the makings. He’s got only the habit.”
What a glorious habit, though! Take in OSF’s 2015 “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” for an addictive dose of all-American tragic poetry.