Some years ago I decided to learn more about American playwrights. I read a biography of each, critical essays of their work, and then two of each of their plays. The playwrights I chose were Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and Edward Albee. O’Neill is considered the first American playwright; he brought realism to the American stage. All the plays I read I had seen either on stage or on film except for Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Reading the plays I’d seen before I knew what was going to happen but for Journey I only knew the story. The intense drama took me by surprise and I found myself crying on the subway while I was reading the ending. So when the Roundabout Theatre Company put on a version of Journey I wanted to be there. A ticket in the last row for a Wednesday matinee was the least expensive. Wednesday matinee meant being surrounded by blue-haired old ladies and men with their gay escorts. Because of its layout the American Airlines Theatre feels bigger than it is. In fact, the American Airlines seats a little more than half of the Richard Rodgers but the former lacks the intimacy of the latter.
O’Neill brought a lot of himself and his history into his plays but Journey is the most biographical and considered his greatest work. Written in 1941-42, it wasn’t performed until 1956 (after O’Neill’s death in 1953). O’Neill did not want the play to be published until 25 years after his death but his widow did not wait. O’Neill’s father James was an Irish immigrant, actor, and alcoholic and his mother Mary Ellen (known as Ella) became a morphine addict after the difficult birth of her third son Eugene. Oldest brother James Jr. (Jamie) was also an actor and an alcoholic. Middle son Edmund died as a baby when his toddler brother Jamie, who had measles, went into the baby’s room where he was not allowed while he was contagious. Ella blamed herself because she was on the road with James, who often insisted that she accompany him because he didn’t want to be alone, and her mother was watching the children. She also blamed Jamie believing he was jealous of the baby and wanted to hurt him. As infants the children might have traveled with their parents. As they got older they were sent to boarding school. As an adult, Eugene was sickly and spent time in a sanatorium for tuberculosis. James was considered one of the most brilliant actors of his time but when he needed to keep money coming in because of his growing family he bought the rights to a stage adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. He had wowed them in New York with his version and, as a frugal man worried about being poor, he liked the steady income so he went out on the road with the play. This became his downfall as he became so identified with the part that audiences refused to see him in any other role. He went on to play the role 6000 times for forty years. James later bitterly regretted how he’d ruined his own career by choosing fortune over artistry.
The previous paragraph is also the story of the Tyrone family. Their summers, like the O’Neills’, are spent at their home (Monte Cristo Cottage) in a seaside town in Connecticut. The play takes place one day in August 1912 from 8:30am to midnight. It begins just after breakfast with father James, mother Mary, and their adult sons Jamie and Edmund. The main set is the living room of the home. It’s set at an angle so that one front corner of the living room hangs over center stage. On the left side is a door to the back porch. On the right are the stairs up to the bedrooms and underneath the stairs is the doorway to the front room that leads to the front door. In the back, behind glass doors, is the dining room, where James and Mary emerge and walk into the living room laughing and holding each other as their sons continue talking and finishing their meal in the dining room. Soon their sons join them – Mary looks good. Everyone comments on it and the more they say it the more uncomfortable she becomes. She insists her hair is out of place and keeps playing with it. Her hair, of course, is perfect but as the day goes on her hair becomes more and more disheveled. Mary’s voice is light and sweet and you can see that she is desperately trying to hold it together. All of the men are afraid to let her out of their sight and she bristles at that. She finally goes upstairs for a nap and the men can hear her wandering around upstairs and they worry. Later in the day she scratches and scratches her arm while she keeps reassuring her family that she is all right.
But there’s a big secret that no one wants to talk about. And as the day unfolds other secrets come to light. There is tension between each of the parents and their eldest. There is tension between the brothers. Edmund is going to the doctor to get the results from his tests and everyone wants to reassure Mary that everything is going to be all right. The sons argue with their father about his frugalness and the lack of available light in the house, which leads to other arguments. Mary talks about how much she hates life on the road – they don’t own any home other than the summer home. The rest of the year James and Mary live in hotel rooms traveling the country. Mary feels uncomfortable with the theater people and is lonely. This dilapidated cottage does not fulfill any of their fantasies of a home – not the physical structure or the family living inside.
Although the men see the big problem in the family as Mary and her addiction, it is revealed that there are many problems. And when Jamie tells truths that the others don’t want to hear, he is treated as the villain.
Jessica Lange was born to play the role of Mary. Her vulnerability and hope or, pursuit of hope, comes through all the way to the back row. Her voice switches from light to dark – sometimes in the same sentence. Gabriel Byrne is also perfect as James. Bitter at what’s become of his life but full of love for his Mary. Michael Shannon is Jamie and he takes over any stage he is on. Sometimes I felt he was a bit overwhelming but then Jamie has to bellow in order to be heard in a family headed by an egomaniacal father, a fragile mother, and sickly brother. John Gallagher, Jr. as Edmund gets a little lost sometimes – but that seems more like an acting choice than a comment on his acting ability. Colby Minifie was delightful as Cathleen, the Irish maid. She gives a little lightness and hilarity during a three hour and 45 minute (with one 15 minute intermission) heavy drama.
As the play moves from one act to another, a small curtain crosses the stage. Tom Pye did a wonderful job with the set design including the fog setting in at night. Natasha Katz’ lighting design helped you to feel the time of the day as you watched the sun and then darkness through the back windows. Clive Goodwin’s sound design fascinated me. There were some sound effects (foghorn, ocean waves) but were the actors mic’d? I really couldn’t tell. I don’t think they were. Jane Greenwood (costume design), Tom Watson (hair and wig design), and Stephen Gabis (dialect coach) did such a fantastic job. The parents were of the 19th century but the sons were of the 20th century – you could see it by dress and actions and speech. Yet there was a bit of the sons that still remained in their parents’ time. And, of course, it all comes together with Jonathan Kent’s direction bringing us a day in the life of a family that is probably similar to all the other days in that nothing really gets resolved.
One amusing moment was when Shannon was trying to twist the light bulb in the chandelier in order to turn it on and the light refused to stay lit. He tried several times and then finally just spun the chandelier around, as his character Jamie would have. And after the bows, Lange and Byrne left the stage with their arms around each other. It was a loving gesture between two actors but it also felt like that’s how Mary and James would leave a room.
By Carene Lydia Lopez