Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Guthrie Theater

Peter Michael Goetz (James Tyrone) and Helen Carey (Mary Cavan Tyrone) in the Guthrie Theater's production of Long Day's Journey into Night, by Eugene O'Neill. Directed Joe Dowling, set design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward and lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

Peter Michael Goetz (James Tyrone) and Helen Carey (Mary Cavan Tyrone) in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Long Day’s Journey into Night, by Eugene O’Neill. Directed Joe Dowling, set design by John Lee Beatty, costume design by Ann Hould-Ward and lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

It’s January. Your impulse is to curl up under a throw blanket on the couch and disappear into a good book, right? Or a fine, classic movie? The Guthrie Theater’s new production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a better pairing for the season than either. Dark, long, a lot of talking – and frighteningly absorbing. Pulling you down into the seat cushions, smothering you with words, taking you to another place – you’ll be exhausted, but in that wonderful cathartic way that only an encounter with art can produce. It’s what theater is supposed to do.

What O’Neill has done is to give us a classic representation of chemical dependency and the dysfunctionality it causes. Those words weren’t used when O’Neill was living this nightmare. We may have gotten better with the language, but no one’s presented a more arresting picture of a family that wants to love, that tries to love, but just can’t get beyond their first “love,” their chemical of choice. In the mother’s case, it’s morphine; the men are alcoholics.

This play was so closely based on O’Neill’s own life that he made sure it would not be performed until after his death. Given its honesty about the family’s communal failure and O’Neill’s nearly life-long struggle to reconcile himself to it, this is quite understandable.

The Guthrie’s production, directed by Joe Dowling, is set in a faithful reproduction of a turn-of-the-century house, with thick newel posts on the stairs, porches all around and a mismatch of furniture. The physical space seems bigger than the family, as if the house was more than the family can inhabit, just as being a family is impossible for them to manage.

The father, James Tyrone, played solidly by Peter Michael Goetz, is a stingy man. Self-absorbed and preoccupied with regrets, he provides cheap furnishings for his family while squirreling away more property acquisitions. Goetz’s technique to play the character as always acting – complete with stock gestures for his sons to mimic – suited the role and its questions: Is he always “on?” Does James never stop and hear what is in someone else’s heart? His dialogue plays more like speeches from the character’s beloved Shakespeare than any sustained attempt at real communication.

Which is another theme in the play. Nobody really listens. They talk at each other. They talk at the same time. They rehash old mistakes, blame each other, blame themselves and drink to forget all of it. Nothing is resolved and nothing ends. Occasionally, they are funny, they try to be nice to each other and they make a stab at a household routine – breakfast, lunch, dinner – but as the day wears on and their chemicals take over, even a simple thing like a meal is impossible.

So they give speeches, reminisce and sometimes just blow up. Then they apologize, but we get the sense that it’s all sort of the same. They aren’t going to hear, no matter what the others are saying – not for long, anyway. And they don’t seem to remember much of it, either, which seems typical of addiction. As long as they all get their chemicals, life just goes on.

I am lumping the behavior of all of them together, but there are differences. Jamie (John Catron) is apparently profligate completely. His mother is thrilled when he actually goes outside and helps his father trim the hedge. This is, of course, pathetic for a man of around 30 who lives off the generosity of his parents, all the while complaining.

The real source of his frustration is the true nature of his relationship with his mother, who still blames Jamie for the death of a little brother at a very young age. Catron’s role is perhaps the toughest one to connect with an audience. He’s mouthy, a ladies’ man (and not in a good way) and a lousy drunk. To Jamie’s credit, he makes clear that he loves his brother Edmund, and says he would do anything for him. Catron shines in the moments when the play allows him to reveal his heart, shattered as it is. He skillfully teeters – literally and figuratively – between sotted blabber and wrenching revelations.

Their mother, Mary (Helen Carey) first appears in a golden skirt, sunny and lively. In Act III, having turned again to morphine, she’s in a bright blue dress. It’s beautiful, but garish by contrast. She’s a different person now. Carey plays this transformation in gloriously understated terms, and she has captured the essence of why addicts are so damned convincing. They can live a lie – and share a lie – like no one else. After another dose of her “medicine” she is a ghost of a real person, floating down the stairs in a white nightgown, dragging her wedding dress along behind her and stumbling around a world inside her head, her fragile connections to reality dissipating before our eyes.

One of these realities is her younger son’s illness. Edmund has tuberculosis, or consumption as it was known, and must go to a sanatorium for several months, at least. Neither pathetic nor admirable, John Skelley’s Edmund is just a shade more lovable, as he is more loved, slightly less of a drunk and has just the smallest glimmer of promise for a future. Skelley gets the plum role, I’d say, as the playwright’s younger self, and it is a beautiful portrayal. He gives the story hope, even if you don’t know the historical facts associated with it.

The difficulty with this play is to dramatize the disconnect without alienating the audience, too; if the characters don’t care, why should we? Ah, but they do. And this is the tragedy of addiction. We know they can love. Their struggle is with their stunted ability to live as if they do.

The play runs through February 23rd. Recommended.

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