Eugene O'Neill's towering family drama Long Day's Journey Into Night is a play so good and so difficult that most companies that tackle it end up failing miserably. As good as the Sonoma County Rep frequently is, I nonetheless approached their new production of O'Neill's masterpiece with a sense of apprehension that can best be described as dread. Had it turned out to be a disaster, I would merely have blamed them for having too much confidence in believing they were up to a test as fiery and potentially damning as Journey.
To my relief, it is decidedly not a disaster; in fact, as directed (with grace and wit) by Sharon Winegar and solidly acted by a first-rate cast, this production ranks as one of the best things the Rep has ever done, with several of its actors giving the finest performances of their careers.
And to think I almost skipped this one.
Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill's richest and most autobiographical play (poor guy), was not written for the stage so much as it was written for the salvation of the playwright's soul. It is an attempt on O'Neill's part to cleanse his psyche of the crushing pain he must have felt after a lifetime of carrying all that anger and hatred for people he had also loved unconditionally and still grieved for. Written in 1942, O'Neill instructed it not be performed until 25 years after his death, a stipulation his widow skirted with the help of Yale University; the work was first performed three years after his death.
The play, about a single transformative day and night in the life of the chronically alcoholic Tyrone family, mirrors the details of O'Neill's own childhood as the youngest son in a family of self-loathing, drink- and drug-addicted theater people, a messy clan of thinkers and dreamers who were as kind to each other as they were frequently, astonishingly cruel. On this one long night, the morphine-addicted wife and mother Mary (a brilliant, detailed performance by Elizabeth Fuller) falls spectacularly off the wagon, and the family, for all the damaged love they feel for one another, is too trapped in its own addictions and resentments to know how to deal with it. The amount of alcohol these characters ingest in one evening is staggering. So psychologically raw for its time was Journey, so crammed with the kind of beautifully crafted "ugly truths" that O'Neil had become famous for, the play was granted a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957 (the author's fourth such honor), and was immediately recognized as a masterpiece.
With just five characters, each one a bundle of rich opportunities for the actor, Journey gives the Rep's cast an emotional workout. Some productions err by forcing the emotion too hard, pushing it into unbearable histrionics. Under Winegar's measured guidance, gentle pace and almost loving tone, the cast sidesteps melodrama and gives up something achingly real.
As the bitter, fearful and disappointed patriarch James, Scott Phillips portrays a professional actor who can only drop his façade of artifice when drunk or in the arms of his beloved, increasingly distant Mary. Avila Reese, in the smallish part of the family's Irish maid, manages to be both sweet and somewhat sad, an unwitting sponge for the family's pain. David Yen, as the acerbic older son James Jr., gets many of the play's funnier lines (O'Neill was a funny writer, something people tend to forget), and skillfully nails the bittersweet duality in such lines as, "I love you more than I hate you." Benjamin Stowe, an intense actor who sometimes buries the truth of his characters in layers of arch self-awareness, steps so far inside the character of Edmund, the frail, tubercular youngest son, that it's like watching an actor be born on stage; this is a magnificent, selfless performance that is frequently, heartbreakingly mesmerizing.
"Mesmerizing" is not the word for what Fuller does with the character of Mary; as she murmurs her dislike of the fog that encases the Tyrone summer home overlooking a river, Fuller descends, step by step, into her own fog of loneliness and despair as Mary moves, slowly at first, then frighteningly quickly, into a morphine-fueled stupor. It is a superb performance in a superb production that, for lovers of exhilarating theater, should quite definitely not be missed.
'Long Day's Journey Into Night' runs Thursday-Saturday through April 29 at the Sonoma County Repertory Theater. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; also, April 22 and 29 at 2pm. 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. $15-$20; Thursday, pay-what-you-can. 707.823.0177.
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