Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night is a difficult play, full of subtle tests of skill for those hardy souls who undertake it. But Germinal Stage Denver's new production grapples with all the challenges and wins. And though the seats turn a tad hard toward the middle of the third act, it's worth it just to see O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece rendered with such loving care.
The length of this play is its one serious drawback, and however sacrilegious it might seem to say so, it needs trimming. Still, the very repetitiousness of some of the lines is part of O'Neill's sagacious take on human behavior--he understood how we all repeat ourselves and that the very nature of human frailty lies in failing to recognize (and alter) the thought patterns that entrap us. O'Neill's genius is in revealing how these transparent patterns of blame and obsession held his family in the grip of alcoholism and drug addiction.
The play's action takes place over one long summer day. Mary and James Tyrone have just finished breakfast. Though Mary is obviously nervous, it is clear that the middle-aged couple love each other. Their two adult sons soon join them in the living room, where friendly family banter slowly turns to icy accusations and innuendos. The older brother, Jamie, is something of a lout--rebellious, angry. The younger brother, Edmund, is very sick with a bad cough. We later learn it's TB.
James and Jamie go out to work on the hedge around the summer house, leaving Edmund with his drug-addicted mother. She thinks he's spying on her, so he leaves her alone. Bad move. She shoots up in a trice (off stage), and she and the others spend the rest of play releasing closeted resentments. The men get drunk. Then they get drunker as Mary descends further and further into her morphine somnambulism.
This would all be unbearably grim if it weren't so perceptive. Unlike the disease-of-the-week formula of a modern film like When a Man Loves a Woman or the pretentious meanness of a play like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, O'Neill's work lays open the utter tragedy of lives wasted. We know what each of these people might have been, how they might have treated each other. Each of these characters has transcendent moments of clarity and self-awareness, yet each returns to the old patterns.
Ed Baierlein gives one of the best performances of the season as James, giving the character enough innate goodness to instantly engage us. Baierlein keeps his drunken scenes restrained--as he gets drunker and drunker, he hides it better and better. James knows he is a miser, but he fails to realize he is an alcoholic as well, and this blindness makes his nasty jibes at the other family members' addictions all the more grating. Baierlein's admirable control is never better demonstrated than when these reproaches grow venomous.
Toni Brady slowly slips into darkness as Mary; her magnificent eyes glow with intelligence and then with longing. Brady projects frayed nerves held in check by a stifling decorum, but as Mary succumbs to the dope, Brady gradually allows us to see those individual nerve endings, one at a time. Kevin Bartlett gives Jamie a natural, ordinary-bloke feel at first, but in the end his powerful confession to Edmund rivets us squarely on the tragedy of this man's lost soul. Edmund is the least crazed member of the family, and though he has the most difficulty in sustaining a drunken pose, Guy Williams gives a sensitive, sophisticated portrait of the young Eugene O'Neill.
O'Neill forgave his parents, and because he forgave them, he understood them--even their self-deceptions and outright lies. That is why this play succeeds so brilliantly to this day: It's both ruthlessly honest and desperately compassionate. Fortunately for us, the Germinal production does O'Neill justice.