Loooong Day's Journey

Unfortunately this O'Neill play still doesn't have much to say

Talk about counterprogramming. South Florida playgoers tired of lightweight modern plays and musicals can find some heavy -- really heavy -- drama at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. The tiny troupe often takes on gargantuan projects and its latest, Long Day's Journey Into Night, is a monster. This three-hour-long tale of family torment is Eugene O'Neill's most personal and most renowned play -- a test of strength for actors and audience alike. In it O'Neill takes a hard, unflinching look at his own family's sorrow, a harrowing drama that still packs a wallop over 60 years after it was written.

O'Neill's own life embodied the birth of modern American drama. His early years were marked by restlessness and failures. After dropping out of Princeton, he bounced from job to job, working for a while as a bit player in his actor father's theater troupe before turning to a string of laboring jobs -- as a cook, a reporter, and a sailor, hanging out with whores and drunks. A bout with tuberculosis put him in a sanatorium, which was a turning point: His wandering ceased and he began to write plays, drawing from his own experiences. He was fortunate to find a theater company, the Provincetown Players, which embraced him as its resident playwright. Together they scaled the heights of theatrical fame, as O'Neill's plays were trumpeted as a new beginning for the American stage.

But by the time he won the Nobel Prize for his work, his career began to tank. His plays fell out of favor but O'Neill kept on writing anyway, and his best work was from this later period; most were not published or produced until after his death in 1953. Such is the case with Long Day's Journey, an intense personal account of his own family drama. The story follows a single day in the life of a tormented Irish-American family, the Tyrones, who are living with the ghosts of the past in their summer home in Connecticut. James Tyrone, the paterfamilias, is a blustering former stage star who traded in his early promise as a Shakespearean actor for the easy money of a popular melodrama, which he toured with endlessly, dragging his family along with him from hotel to hotel.

The Tyrone family struggles with dysfunction, disease, and despair
The Tyrone family struggles with dysfunction, disease, and despair

Details

By Eugene O'Neill, directed by Barbara Lowery. With Keith Cassidy, John Felix, Sally Levin, Euriamis Losada, and Francesca N. Toledo. Through October 19. Call 305-443-5909.
The New Theatre, 4120 Laguna St, Coral Gables, FL

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His eldest son Jamie is a restless ne'er-do-well, embittered and estranged from the elder Tyrone. The younger son Edmund, another wanderer, has literary ambitions but is hampered by a nagging cough that heralds the onset of tuberculosis. All three medicate their pain with copious doses of whiskey while Mary Tyrone, James's wife and the sons' mother, struggles with the twin demons of drug addiction and despair.

Family dysfunction, disease, and addiction are the everyday fodder for afternoon talk shows. But back in the early Twentieth Century, such subjects were disturbing and shocking. The American theater was largely built on escapist entertainment, avoiding any sort of ugly human truths except perhaps in a romanticized melodrama. Then O'Neill came along, introducing brutal reality as the basis for his dramas. Like his idols, Strindberg and Ibsen, O'Neill set out to scour the theater of sugary sentimentality. He also sought a new, vital theatricality, exploring all sorts of experimental forms in an onslaught of innovative plays. In the process, he became the poster boy for modern American playwrights, spinning his personal sorrows into theatrical gold. Those greats who followed him -- Williams, Miller, Albee -- have all walked the trail that O'Neill blazed.

Long Day's Journey is powerful work -- poetic, poignant, often searing and painful with haunting characterizations and careful psychological detail. But in my opinion, it is not great drama. In fact it is melodrama. Despite the wealth of battling, deeply wounded characters, not much happens in this play, which is basically an overlong revelation of What's Really Going On with Mary Tyrone's Drug Addiction. It's designed as a slow striptease of information without subsequent action or character choice. No one changes here; they are revealed in a series of shocking revelations, long aria-like monologues, and verbal confrontations -- making Long Day's Journey a sort of spoken opera that ends, as many an opera does, in a mad scene. The frequent soul-barings, the desperate accusations and plaintive reconciliations together with the uncomfortable three-hour length present major challenges to any production.

The New Theatre's version faces up to these challenges but doesn't scale them, opting for a careful, conservative staging that offers no point of view or theatrical voice. Barbara Lowery's direction looks good, and the dramatic beats are clear. Lowery also must be credited with finding a strong humorous streak in O'Neill's text, especially in the second half, a welcome counterpoint to all the gloom and doom.

But this Journey nevertheless remains earthbound. Like many productions in South Florida, it appears to have originated as a programming choice, not an urgent need to say something important. Lowery's staging lacks any personality or risk, and many scenes seem underrehearsed, competently staged but not explored. There's little sense of the ordinary life in this household, and in several scenes characters make entrances with no clear intentions except to jump into extended verbal confrontations with whoever happens to be onstage at the moment. This lack of specificity underscores the play's weaknesses and puts an even greater burden on the cast to carry the play on the backs of their characterizations.

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