EXCERPTS FROM THE REVIEW
Below are excerpts from the February 19, 2018 DC Theatre Scene review of Long Day's Journey Into Night.
In 1919, Eugene O’Neill wrote a play called Exorcism. It is about shame. It is set in 1912, and in it the protagonist confesses to his boozy friend that he committed adultery with a prostitute because adultery was the only ground upon which he and his wife could get a divorce. It had one production in O’Neill’s lifetime.
Twenty-two years later, O’Neill wrote his best and very nearly his last play — Long Day’s Journey into Night. It is about shame. It is set in 1912, and in it a father and his two sons drink bourbon prodigiously while tearing into each other and worrying about each other and about their wife and mother, who is addicted to morphine. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1957.
How is it that Exorcism is mediocre, and Long Day’s Journey is superb? You can see the difference immediately if the latter play is produced with the same brilliance with which it is written…as it is being produced in Everyman Theatre in Baltimore. It is a tense, layered, complex story, with love and anger infused in every word and gesture, so closely that it is impossible to separate them. And Everyman Theatre plays the hell out of it.
"Donald Hicken's superb cast does the job... Hazlett is fiercely luminous."
Long Day’s Journey, like Exorcism, is a play in which not a great deal happens. But we leave the Everyman Theatre production breathless, and exhausted, anyway. Between Exorcism and Long Day’s Journey, O’Neill appears to have discovered that while confession may be good for the soul, denial is good for drama. And in Long Day’s Journey, the Tyrone family denies their sins, denies their weaknesses, denies their feelings, and in scouring each other with this denial for three and a quarter hours, arrive at the truth.
At the outset, it is clear that the Tyrone family is denying two obvious truths — that the younger son, Edmund (Danny Gavigan) is suffering from tuberculosis (“A summer cold could make anyone irritable,” his mother says) and that Mary Tyrone (Deborah Hazlett) has relapsed into morphine addiction. But as the day turns to night, the Tyrone tongues, loosened by bourbon and morphine, unleash a torrent of bitterness, accusation and torment upon each other, and we learn a dozen other hidden truths.
To deny your feelings, while simultaneously giving vent to them, almost defies the laws of physics. Yet we are often that way with our families, whom we love and who exasperate us. It is a human posture, almost impossible to reproduce in art, but Donald Hicken’s superb cast does the job.
Consider, for example, James Tyrone (Kurt Rhoads), the patriarch of this crumbling family. He is adrift in rage and bafflement over his two sons. He is an eighth-grade dropout who has become a highly successful and — even more astonishingly — wealthy actor. He cannot understand his older son Jamie (Tim Getman) who, at thirty-four, has no steady employment except drinking and playing the horses, and no plan to get any. Nor does he understand his dreamy younger son Edmund, who has spent two years bumming around South America and now sits at home reading poetry. “Forget everything and face nothing!” he roars at Jamie at the play’s outset, but a minute later he’s laughing at a funny story Edmund tells about an encounter he had at the local bar.
Do you think just any actor could pull off such a role? Watch Rhoads, a large, fleshy man, in the final scene as he and Edmund sit at midnight in the darkened parlor, slugging down bourbons as they wait for Jamie to come home while worrying that Mary, in a morphine trance, will come downstairs. “To your health,” James says to his consumptive son, and then he gulps down his booze as if it were a medicinal potion. And then Edmund starts in on him — for his cheapness, for his self-indulgence and lack of empathy, for his lies. Rhoads as James is like a heavyweight fighter who is too weary to ward of the blows of a smaller man, wincing in pain but otherwise impassive. He is too much in love with his son to fight back except in ineffectual bursts, and too self-protective to give Edmund the embrace he longs to give.
“You can choose any place you like!” James roars. He is talking about the sanatorium at which Edmund, his illness now undeniable, will be treated. “Any place I can afford. Any place — within reason.” And there, in a nutshell, is the contradiction which must abide within the character of James Tyrone, and within the character of the actor who plays him. Is Rhoads equal to the task? Yes, in spades. Rhoads makes this complicated man transparent within minutes. You will know him immediately, and — notwithstanding his manifest faults — you will like him within a half hour.
Or consider Gavigan, as Edmund. An actor robust enough to have played Lenny in Keegan’s production of Of Mice and Men a few years back, Gavigan manages to make himself look frail and hectic, and to give Edmund’s illness an almost spiritual aspect. Any good actor can cough convincingly on cue, but Gavigan manages to infuse Edmund’s whole persona with his illness, so that he seems already a ghost, even while exchanging wisecracks with his brother or slamming down alcohol with his father. Gavigan has done good work for as long as I’ve watched him, but with this production he has taken it up to the next level.
Or what about Getman? He is rapidly becoming the sort of actor who would cause me to pluck down good money to see a play, just because he was in it. Jamie is a roaring drunk (all the Tyrone men are problem drinkers, but none more so than the older son) but Hicken and Getman have more important things to do with our time than to show the obvious characteristics of drunkenness. Like many experienced topers in their cups, Jamie’s speech is clear though his mind is disordered. Jamie is bluff and cheerful, like a man whistling his way through a graveyard. It is emblematic of Getman’s entire performance, in which this doomed and loveable wastrel wins our own hearts.
But the story, at bottom, is really about Mary Tyrone, and in that role Deborah Hazlett shines, even in the midst of so much radiant talent. Everyman Artistic Director Vincent M. Lancisi says that he selected the play in part to celebrate Hazlett’s 20th anniversary with the company by casting her in a role equal to her talents. It is a wise choice; Hazlett is fiercely luminous.