Saturday, May 01, 2004

Long Day's Journey Into Night (Ensemble Theatre)

‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ gets good performance at Ensemble

On July 22, 1941, on the 12th anniversary of his marriage, Eugene O’Neill wrote this letter to his wife: “Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play.”

The play he was referring to was ‘A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT,’ now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

The history of the script is fascinating. In the summer of 1939, at the age of 50, O'Neill began work on an autobiographical masterpiece that confronted the truth about his own family. He completed the work in 1941, but said the play was not to be produced until 25 years after his death.

His wife, however, knowing of the power of the work, released it for production in 1956, three years after O'Neill's death. It won a Pulitzer Prize and has often been hailed as O'Neill's greatest play, even being called the greatest American play of all time.

Though the names have been changed, O'Neill gives an account of his explosive home life. James Tyrone is an aging actor and a miserly skinflint. His wife, Mary, has been a morphine addict since the birth of their youngest son, Edmund. Their eldest son, Jamie is an alcoholic, unable an unwilling to find work on his own. Edmund, (Eugene O’Neill himself) who has been away as a sailor has returned home sick and awaits the doctor's diagnosis. Each of them is so self-centered, and self-pitying, that they cannot help one-another as they sink further and further into despair.

During his sanitorium confinement for consumption O'Neill studied voraciously. He devoted special attention to the playwrights Ibsen and Strindberg. His plays reflect these authors’ stark realistic styles.

The 1920 Broadway production of ‘BEYOND THE HORIZON’ marked the start of O'Neill's ascent to fame. He won the Nobel Prize in 1936, the first American playwright to receive the honor. O’Neill’s classics include ‘THE ICEMAN COMETH,’ ‘THE EMPEROR JONES,’‘ANNA CHRISTIE,’ ‘THE HAIRY APE,’‘DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS,’ ‘AH WILDERNESS,’ and ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN.’

An award winning 1962 film version of ‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ starred Dean Stockwell , Jason Robards, Ralph Richardson, and Katharine Hepburn.

‘LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’ is a very hard play to perform. It is very long, talky and depressing. Ensemble’s production, under the direction of Licia Colombi, is a very creditable staging.

The handsome and slight Andrew Curse is a perfect Edmund. His body wracks with deep-lung coughs, he perfectly portrays O’Neill’s valiant fight for sanity in an addictively dysfunctional family.

In portraying O’Neill’s mother, Annie Kitral takes on one of the great women’s stage roles. As with actresses who portray Blanche in ‘STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE,’ Amanda in ‘THE GLASS MENAGERIE,’ and Martha in ‘WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF,’ she confronts a major challenge. And, she wins the battle. This is a finely honed performance. She clearly carries us deeper and deeper into her depression as she attempts to escape from reality through drugs.

Robert Hawkes gives a good performance as the drunken and misguided father. He might have textured the role more to give a clearer picture of the character’s mood swings as his frustration with life builds and we see that, as with most alcoholics, he goes from drug induced rage to depression.

John Kolibab has some fine moments near the play’s ending when he purports both his love and hate for his younger brother while wallowing in a drunken haze. He, as with Hawkes, needed more clearly defined moments of rationality and psychological clashes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: A classic nine word review of the play once stated, “ ‘A LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT’--yes, it was!” Fortunately for local audiences Colombi has cut almost an hour off the overly-long script and has molded her cast into an effective unit. Ensemble’s production is a fine way to experience the power of O’Neill.