"LONG DAYS JOURNEY INTO NIGHT" at Goodman Theatre
BY LUCIA MAURO
Before the audience settles in for a nearly four-hour observation of the Tyrone familys descent into irreparable delusion during Goodman Theatres revival of Eugene ONeills "Long Days Journey into Night," they are consumed by the set. But rarely has scenic design appeared so colossal yet so claustrophobic. And within Santo Loquastos towering replica of the Tyrones ramshackle New England summer home with its wood beams rising into a surreal infinity a sepia heaviness chokes the life out of four individuals drowning in a cycle of blame, regret and tattered glory.
Central to the characters emotional decrepitude is the light which, for ONeill, could be harsher than the blackness of night. Brian MacDevitts lighting design takes on a life or, more accurately, a death of its own emitting a stained glow, as brown and speckled as younger son Edmunds consumptive lungs. Even Loquastos early 20th century costumes, with their layers of leaden-wool fabric, bury these unfulfilled souls in a suffocating shroud of mourning. Sound designer Richard Woodburys low groaning fog horn becomes the bell tolling for one familys moral dissolution.
While Robert Falls eloquent production of ONeills autobiographical epic (for which the playwright won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1956) does not boast an impeccably synchronized cast and sometimes sags under the weight of its dismal, whiskey-drenched subject matter, the visual and aural atmosphere speaks with its own poetic solemnity.
"Long Days Journey into Night" mirrors the dysfunctional environment of ONeills own home life. Set in 1912, it takes place over the course of one interminable day during the Tyrone familys summer break at its temporary home scattered with second-hand furniture and books. Patriarch James Tyrone an Irish immigrant rose from the depths of poverty to become a well-regarded classical stage actor. A notorious tightwad, he often opted to save money rather than seek the best care and accommodations for his torn-apart family.
At the center of the play is James "dope fiend" wife, Mary, who wanders around this lonely house like a ghost searching for the means to drown in a past even as her memories (especially the death of her second child) torment her every waking hour. She blames James for listening to a "quack doctor" after the birth of their son, Edmund. He gave her morphine for the pain, and she spent the rest of her life trying to overcome her addiction. This particular night, Marys addiction recurs.
By plays end, she has drifted so far into the past, it has smothered her, along with her now-humbled and numb husband; oldest son Jamie also a stage actor -- downspiraling into his own addiction for alcohol and prostitutes; and frail, bookish youngest son Edmund, who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Audiences essentially witness one familys plunge into mortifying hopelessness. Blame begets blame; and the past forever engulfs and swallows them whole.
Viewers will no doubt weary of the sheer density of ONeills words and the repetitive nature of the play, which reflects the ongoing cycle of dysfunction and illness that plagues the Tyrone blood line. But one cannot deny that this is an earth-shattering drama written from the depths of ONeills own demon-racked being.
Brian Dennehy turns in a sonorously measured if not, sluggish, at times performance as James. Steve Pickering masterfully balances Jamies insolence with pitiable regret; and David Cromer gives Edmund a sardonic edge. Susan Bennett delivers a spunky, albeit overly high-pitched, performance as their Irish maid Cathleen.
But this production belongs to the devastatingly real Pamela Payton-Wright as the pathetically paranoid Mary. She brought tears to my eyes with her fissured angelic voice. I physically felt her unraveling amid her prescient ramblings.
Inside that big old house, with its rafters rising to eternity, one American family shrinks from the unbearable anguish of its temporal regret.
"Long Days Journey into Night" runs through April 6 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 312-443-3800 or log onto www.goodman-theatre.org.