We are nothing if not hopelessly addicted to happy endings. Elysian Fields and heavenly cities of gold, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, reconciliation after heart-rending parting, that sliver of silver lining life's stormy clouds.
By the time Eugene O'Neill got around to writing Long Day's Journey Into Night, he had long since realized such happy endings were useful for short-term denial and life amid the fog but incapable of sustaining those cursed to believe in one thing only—that all is futile. Sure, that's an illusion in and of itself, but it's one impossibly hard nut to crack.
Many a playwright would have chosen to write a play that offered an alternative to that bleak vision, some sentimental piece designed to make himself, and his audience, feel better. Not O'Neill. It's hard to think of another great play by a great playwright that is as obsessively grim as Long Day's Journey Into Night,O'Neill's nakedly autobiographical three-hour play of a family weighted by the most onerous yoke of all—the blood they share. Written to confront the demons of O'Neill's past —his morphine-addicted mother, his younger brother's death in a sanitarium, his domineering father, his own raging alcoholism—this is a harrowing journey but one that, done well, ranks among the greatest exorcisms the theater has ever seen.
But while demons are conjured and even sometimes glimpsed during Alternative Repertory Theatre's current production, they never entirely take corporeal form onstage.
This is a play with little plot and little suspense. It proceeds inch by agonizing inch, blending past and present in a series of revelations, memories and bitter attacks. In order to make it seem like something other than three hours of talking, talking and more talking, the acting and staging have to be immaculately precise. While there are some excellent stretches in this Pat Terry-directed production—particularly the last half-hour—some uneven steps and questionable choices early on prevent this Journey from feeling as profoundly powerful as it could.
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Only F. Thom Spadaro's James Tyrone, the penny-pinching patriarch of the family, is dead-on from start to finish. His is a proud but helpless James, seemingly aware that his family is disintegrating into self-medication and isolation but unable to confront his own complicity. It's a complicated, often charming performance. Sally Leonard's Mary Tyrone, the morphine-addled matriarch, eventually descends into the fog of her character's narcosis, but the transformation is undercut by the play's opening moments. Rather than nervous and high-strung, this Mary seems positively bouncy at the play's beginning. The immense loneliness she feels needs to be hinted at sooner in order to set the inexorable march of the play in process.
The brothers Tyrone, Jamie (Andrew J. Kelley) and Edmund (Nathan Bouldin), also take a while to crawl into their characters. Bouldin does eventually make Edmund, the consumptive poet whose illness triggers his mother's relapse, his own. But Kelley's Jamie seems angry and petulant rather than the vindictively charming black sheep O'Neill calls for.
Even with the misses, this is a good effort at a most difficult play, one most theaters avoid. It's long, it's dense, it's wordy, it's sad. It's no audience pleaser. The mountain that must be scaled over the course of the play is formidable—as is the abyss these characters seem fated to inhabit. Any production that comes close to touching those heights and depths, as this one does, is a victory, happy ending be damned.
Long Day's Journey Into Night at Alternative Repertory Theatre, 125 N. Broadway, Ste. B, Santa Ana, (714) 542-5580. Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through March 4. $18-$25.