"They are not long, the weeping and the laughter, love and desire and hate..."
Andrew Veenstra; photo: Hubert Schriebl
With the words, above, from a poem by Ernest Dowson that includes a reference to "the days of wine and roses," Jamie Tyrone takes a shot at the future, seeing his own life ending relatively young and completely unsatisfied along with the deaths of his father, famous matinee idol actor James Tyrone and his mother Mary, a morphine addict who cannot connect any longer with the reality around her. He is also pointing the way for his youngest brother, Edmund, to bring his immortality in plays that would astound the world with their brilliance. Edmund, who refers often to the early death of their middle brother, Eugene, is - in reality - Eugene O'Neill and this is his life in his posthumously produced play, "Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Many of O'Neill's plays were autobiographical or biographical as they concern his own family. This one, winner of his fourth Pulitzer Prize, is a tough one, a play in which each and every word has impact and even the small allusion to a historical moment, person or event, has much greater relevance to O'Neill's own life patterns than may be realized by a novice. Even so, this play in its stark reality will have an effect on anyone who sees it. In its current production at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont the actors who move through the rough seas of its four acts, comprising a single day in the Tyrone family's lives, are delivering deep, tough, insightful performances.
The play follows the actual events in O'Neill's life that immediately preceded his time in a sanitarium recovering from Consumption (Tuberculosis). Andrew Veenstra plays Edmund (Eugene), first as an actor on a stage filled with hidden things, costume racks, equipment, all part of the visual concept of director Ethan McSweeny, reading the playwright's dedication and then his set description as a way of providing physical context to what we see, a space we never leave for four acts, three hours and twenty minutes. Veenstra's boyish good looks and physical strength play well for the character at the center of this story. This is O'Neill's own story with little changed, but he is not the main character in spite of his being so central to the movement of the play. That center-stage occupier is Edmund's mother. Her heart beats as the rhythm of the show. Her life-force is the motivator of the plot. Mary Tyrone is the thing the playwright needs to talk about and talk he does.
Sometimes he talks through the woman herself; she relates her history to the maid, Cathleen, played here by Piper Goodeve. The two women, left alone at dusk, sit and drink James' whiskey and share in the glories of a girlhood Mary treasures, life in a convent school, the dark history of her love for James Tyrone, the travails of a traveling wife and mother. Goodeve is a perfect receptor of this information, cheerfully goading her mistress on to tell more secrets. She imbues in the maid all of the best characteristics of a Shakespeare clown who knows more secrets than she can tell, and will tell them to others on any slight provocation. Her presence lightens the mood when the mood gets devilishly dark.
Veenstra is the lighter, slightly less interesting, Tyrone brother. Knowing he is fragile should compel us to watch him intently, but we move, as the director directs us to do, between him, his mother and his brother. This actor is the perfect person for this role. He is very handsome and we notice that instantly, but then he becomes less interesting as he allows things to float past him and his brother grabs the spotlight in an easy way. Young James, or Jamie, is so concentrated on their mother and her personal difficulties that every time he speaks he moves our concentration off of Veenstra's Edmund and onto Kathryn Meisle's Mary. Veenstra keeps jerking out attention back to his character only to continue to lose us to Jame and Mary. The back and forth hassling for center stage, their father's usual position, keeps the show vital and alive.
Piper Goodeve; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Derek Smith; photo: Hubert Schriebl
As their father, Derek Smith has the good sense to grab attention only now and then. James is accustomed to being everyone's clear objective, to being the one everyone looks at, to, and for. The only person he knows who can collect the same attention is his wife whose personal tragedies are geared for attention-getting. Throughout the play he loses importance to her. Smith plays this reality with obvious dislike whichis marvelous. The man does a "slow burn" wonderfully. Smith has the good looks that Tyrone needs. Fredrick March, who originated the role in 1956, had that matinee idol grown older appearance (sadly Ralph Richardson in the 1962 film does not). Smith has all of the physical qualities and he projects a strong image of the man as well.
Liam Graig is an excellent James, Jr. His literary sense is beautifully drawn by this actor showing the potential that Jamie has of extinguishing his father, a move the son cannot make in spite of trying to achieve this. Jamie's love for his brother is sensitively portrayed. His hatred for a mother who has deserted him more than once in times of need continually pings through as Craig speaks of her, looks at her, reaches out to her without moving a muscle.
Kathryn Meisle takes the show away from the three men in her character's life. In the second half of the play, beginning with the actual Act Three, she begins to show the true cracks in her mind, as her nature allows Mary to remember what she wants to know and to forget what she finds to be irrelevant. Meisle's simple playing of Mary, a woman with purpose who has lost her way, is effective and affecting. She is heart-breaking in the final scene of the play as she brings into soft-focus various moments in her life simultaneously, thereby stretching reality in many directions at once.
Dowson's poem, already quoted here, has a title in latin that translated means"The brief sum of life forbids us the hope of enduring long" and this is exactly what is desired by Mary, by Jamie and even a bit by James - who hates the poem and the poet. For Edmund the hope is just the opposite and O'Neill lets us see how out of step the young man is with his family who will provide his own author, O'Neill, with so many excellent stories from this family's past. This play is so very personal that knowing a little or a lot about the real Eugene forces us to find conclusions in this nearly final work even as we are moved away from doing so by the emotional circumstances in which we find ourselves.
The work of designers Lee Savage (sets) Tracy Christensen (costumes) and Scott Bolman (lights) provides a weird combination of theatricality and realism, a good combination for the play. Jenny Giering's original music and Mikhail Fiksel's sound design helps guide our minds and hearts in the director's chosen paths. McSweeny's concept production works so very well that it may be hard to separate future editions of this play from the one at hand.
There isn't much time to see this show, so take a swig of whiskey, grab ahold of your ticket and embark for the Connecticut shore where the Tyrone's are having a day at home, with our without you. They don't care if you show up; they are so involved in their own lives and you are most welcome to look on, if you dare.
Long Day's Journey Into Night plays at the Weston Playhouse, 12 Park Street, Weston, Vermont through September 3. For tickets and information contact the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.