Chicago Theatre Review
Court’s ‘Long Day’s Journey’ Exemplary, but Marred by Length
Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Court Theatre
Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is that most unfortunate of plays – a work of dazzling passion and immediacy that is ultimately hampered by its indulgence.
Set in the Connecticut summer home of the Tyrone family, “Long Day’s Journey” is populated with the cast of uniquely unhappy people one expects from an O’Neill play: patriarch James (played with dignity by well-known character actor Harris Yulin), who sold out his talents as an actor for fame and now, wealthy beyond measure and one of the state’s largest landowners, slowly ages in denial and alcoholism; matriarch Mary (the incredible Mary Beth Fisher), a morphine addict and manic depressive who is increasingly incapable of distinguishing past, present, and future; and sons Edmund (Michael Doonan) and Jamie (Dan Waller), one a man-child succumbing to tuberculosis, the other an alcoholic man-child of infuriating immaturity.
The first two acts of “Long Day’s Journey,” which deal principally with Mary’s depression and her relapse to morphine, are some of the most powerful theater Court has ever staged. David Auburn’s direction is taut, with suspicion and apprehension hanging in the air; Jack Magaw’s remarkable set, which is of the Tyron’s house – albeit half finished, with boards and framing missing – subtly reinforces the play’s themes of exposure, of bareness, of perfunctory accomplishment; Lee Keenan’s striking lighting alternates between the deep blues of the Connecticut coast and the sad golds and browns of the house.
And then there is Mary Beth Fisher, who is a surefire Jeff nominee for her acting. The role of Mary is notoriously difficult. Desperate, pathetic, and maddening in equal measure, Mary’s dialogue alternates between sad pleas of understanding, nostalgic ramblings, and cutting (even cruel) observations of her husband and children’s shortcomings – and often on a line to line basis; a pleasant memory of her childhood piano lessons instantly devolves into a scornful remark of the hated road trips her husband forced her to take during his acting days. And Fisher is flawless at every step, handing the complex character with such focus and charisma that she nearly overshadows the production’s very capable cast.
So again, limiting our focus to the overwhelming strengths of those first two acts, “Long Day’s Journey” is one of the best plays on a Chicago stage right now…until the play’s third act comes around, which gives the “interminable” adjective a incredibly accurate case study. O’Neill was many things as a playwright, but concise was not one of them (“The Iceman Cometh,” for instance, runs four-plus hours), and his indulgences in the final act of “Long Day’s Journey,” which ultimately pushed the play’s running time past three and a half hours, take things to new heights. Once again, we see Edmund arguing with his father about money. Once again, we see Jamie uttering mean-spirited statements, to which Edmund offers exasperated cries while walking away. Once again, James lectures his sons on his career as an actor, and his childhood poverty. All are elements that were clearly demonstrated in the play’s earlier moments, and all are devoid of the play’s single most compelling aspect – the character of Mary; she is kept offstage for nearly all of the final act, and given Fisher’s talents, that is highly unfortunate.
A 1987 staging of “Long Day’s Journey,” which featured Jack Lemmon, Kevin Spacey, and Peter Gallagher in its cast, took a hatchet job to O’Neill’s text, trimming it down by a good 40 minutes. Seeing the play in its full element at Court makes one wish that Auburn had made similarly bold choices.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented through April 10 by Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Tickets are available by calling 773-753-4472 or by visiting http://www.courttheatre.org/.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.