At the end of Long Day's Journey Into Night, the audience members at Germinal Stage did something I've never seen at that theater: They stood up and applauded. It's not that Germinal hasn't staged excellent works in the past — works worthy of a standing ovation. It's just that audiences here tend to be a little more judicious and theater-savvy than the folks who spring so rapidly to their feet after big, glitzy musicals and dated tear-jerkers. I'm guessing many people in the audience knew this was the last season in this intimate, history-soaked theater lined with photographs of thirty years of past productions, and perhaps also the last time they'd see artistic director Ed Baierlein, one of the best actors around, tackle a major role — or at least this major role. (Baierlein plans to mount plays in rented spaces once he leaves the Germinal building.) But I don't think that was it. Rather, I took the ovation as a tribute to something the audience sensed in the production, something moving and soul-deep.
The Tyrone household in Eugene O'Neill's play is a bitter and unhappy one. At the head of the clan is James, a onetime actor who abandoned his goal of genuine artistry for a comfortable paycheck — which kept coming for a time, although the family is pretty strapped by now. Raised in desperate poverty and terrified of the poorhouse, he has become a grasping miser, clinging for dear life onto whatever he has. His sons, Jamie and Edmund, believe that his stinginess caused their mother's morphine addiction: Edmund's birth was a difficult one, and James refused to pay for a first-rate doctor to help his wife, Mary, with the pain. Now Edmund himself is in need of medical care, and it seems James will repeat the pattern and allow his unreasoning thrift to doom his youngest. As if all of this weren't enough fodder for rage, Jamie blames Edmund for the fact that his birth caused Mary's debilitation. Malicious and angry statements are so commonplace in this family that half the time, the recipient doesn't even bother to respond. And, of course, there's also bitter and frustrated love.
Long Day's Journey is a long play, a flood of passionate words that include insults, rejoinders, mea culpas, drunken declarations of love and moments of quickly smothered tenderness. Within the almost-cozy setting of the Tyrone living room swirls an ocean of despair and rage; outside, there's emptiness, fog and the occasional sound of a foghorn.
Long Day's Journey Into Night
Presented by Germinal Stage Denver through June 9, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 303-455-7108, www.germinalstage.com.
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One of the reasons this production works so well is that it respects the playwright's language, which means that what I've tended to hear in the past as a gush of self-pity, invective and moony reminiscence here takes on clarity and contour; you sense the grandeur in the expression. For the first time, I felt I could understand these people: James Tyrone's deep love for his wife and his despair at the realization that he's losing her to addiction, his son Jamie to drunkenness and his poetic youngest, Edmund, to tuberculosis; Edmund's lonely despair at the diagnosis and the inability of anyone in his narcissistic family to offer the remotest understanding or comfort; the way Mary's self-romanticizing memories have become her only defense against a terrifying loneliness.
I found Stephen R. Kramer's Jamie a little uncentered, but Zachary M. Andrews, tall and elegant as if he'd stepped from the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, turns in a fascinating performance as Edmund. He seems to be working hard to accommodate the rest of the family and stifle his feelings of grief and fear. As a result, these feelings are all the more moving when they emerge.
The performances of Baierlein as James Tyrone and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo as Mary are the standouts, though. I've frequently seen James Tyrone — who is, after all, an Irish actor — portrayed as larger than life, a histrionic blusterer. Baierlein's version is inward and quiet; this is a man who has given up the fight but still can't forgive himself for it. And his low-key, self-effacing approach both throws the household's wrangling into high relief and creates a quiet space in which that wrangling finds shape and meaning. Sarzin-Borrillo's Mary matches his performance for power. She's every bit as self-absorbed as you expect, but she's animated by a current of feeling so pure, deep and clear that you can forgive her almost everything.