It has taken 23 years, but when Nathan Baesel and Joe Parrish walk onstage Friday for the first performance of Eugene O'Neill's epic heartbreaker of a play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, it will complete a theatrical relationship that began when one man was a rosy-cheeked high-school junior and the other was scared shitless about being onstage.
"The first time he ever walked into my office, I just knew he had it," says Parrish, 62, who has taught theater and math at Buena Park High School for 31 years. "He just blew me away by how charismatic he was. I've had many talented students, but I just knew that he had this special gift."
Two decades since then, Parrish has successfully overcome a crippling case of stage fright that sidelined him from acting for years. He's rattled off a string of monumental performances recently at OC theaters including the Maverick and STAGES, starring and directing in A Death of a Salesman and 12 Angry Men and pulling off Tricky Dick in Frost/Nixon, among other notable roles. Baesel moved on to Fullerton College and Juilliard, and though he has taken a break from acting the past three years to help raise his two sons, he has worked at South Coast Repertory and starred in the 2006 cult horror mockumentary, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon.
What brings the two together as fellow actors is a play by a protean American dramatist who is in all the theater history books, but who, strangely, is rarely produced these days. Long Day's Journey Into Night, written in the early 1940s, was O'Neill's last published play, released in 1957, four years after his death, earning a dead guy a Pulitzer Prize. It is awash in the personal and familial discord that plagued the writer's life, from his alcoholism and depression to family members' drug addictions and suicide attempts. It is a long, four-act, dark play that takes considerable commitment by both the cast and the audience, probably one reason why it is so seldom produced.
But a teenage Parrish fell in love with a monologue from the play when he heard it performed on the Mike Douglas Show. Its difficulty, he thinks, is also what makes it so accessible, holding a cracked mirror up to society.
"I hear this from people all the time: 'Why do you want to do [this play]? . . . It's so boring; it's so long,'" he says. "But really, it's not. No, it's not an easy play to do, and audiences really have to look and listen, but it is an amazing play. I've been studying the play with my [high school students], and even though they've never heard of O'Neill, they absolutely love it. They all [recognize that many people] have dysfunctional families, just like I do. . . . And O'Neill knew this and put it across in a play."
For Baesel, who plays the drunken eldest son to Parrish's thundering, tragic patriarch, James Tyrone, performing with his acting mentor was incentive enough. But the opportunity to tackle one of the deeply flawed, deeply human characters in O'Neill's pantheon of fuck-ups only sweetened the deal.
He became truly aware of the playwright while watching a Kevin Spacey-starring production of The Iceman Cometh, written in the same period as Long Day's Journey Into Night. "I wasn't completely impressed with the production, but the play really struck me," Baesel says. "It had this grandeur to it, and at the same time, it was slumming social issues involving common people. It was written at a time when so much theater was meant to be uplifting and aggrandizing, and this play was set in a dive bar with a bunch of folks you'd meet in any bar—it made an impact."
That ability to imbue common, confused, misused, strung-out people with a sense of epic tragedy holds true for the acting family at the heart of Long Day's Journey Into Night, Baesel says.
"Everyone's got a story; the only difference is that some people have the facility to express it," he says. "And what draws me [to O'Neill] is his ability to tell the kinds of stories from people who weren't able to tell their own. He writes characters that are so relatable and with language that is so steeped in vernacular, yet there is so much emotion that, if you channel the right tone, it kind of flies like Greek tragedy. These are everyday people, but if the play isn't filled with that kind of weight and emotion and tension and really high stakes, it can be depressing. So I think the only way an audience walks in and leaves with something [tangible] is to really relate on both of those levels, to gain some sort of catharsis."