A Relentless Journey into Night
Long Day's Journey Into Night Directed by David Gammons At the Loeb X Through November 16
Harold Bloom deemed Eugene O'Neil "the elegist of the Freudian family romance, of the domestic tragedy of which we all die daily, a little bit at a time." Many of O'Neil's plays dredge up and dramatize explicitly autobiographical tragedies. But Long Day's Journey into Night is the work in which O'Neil finally felt "enabled to face my dead at last and write with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones."
David Gammon's adaptation of Long Day's Journey Makes glaringly evident the daily "deaths" of these four characters. His re-ordering of the script makes the audience instantly aware that the mother, Mary Tyrone, is a morphine addict, that Mary's life and that of her family's has been marred by conflict and anguish. China Forbes powerfully portrays a Mary who is bitter and regretful about all the "might have beens" in her own life.
Mary's opening soliloquy also reveals the quality of her family's life: "one-night stands, cheap hotels, dirty trains, leaving children, never having a home." In the first scene that Edmund and Tyrone enter, his fatal disease and his father's drinking is made apparent, as is Jamie's unwholesome dawdling in the barrooms and brothels uptown.
To underscore the bare ugly truths of the Tyrone family, not only does Gammons rearrange the plot, but he also excises the text. This powerful interpretation brings home the way that each member of this family has acted and been acted upon to create a collectively tragic fate. Hardcore cynicism and hopelessness gain prominence through Gammons's textual revisions. He deletes lines like "all I care about is to see you get well" and "she loves you as dearly as ever mother loved a son." Characters are tightened up rarely silly or mushy.
However potent Gammons vision is, it limits the richness of O'Neil's text in two ways. By refusing to let the truths develop out of illusions, Gammons sacrifices O'Neil's "happy family" setup of the first act that universalizes the Tyrones and invites the audience to identify with them. Because no process of gradual realization remains to develop the plot sequence, Gammons's versions seems like a series of incidents strung together but not causally related--gone is the sense of crescendo in the final act.
Second, the audience wonders why this family stays together at all. While O'Neil certainly saw the family as part of the cause of tragedy, he also allowed it to function as a source of support. Gammons has subverted most of the text and stage directions that directly present those few non-dysfunctional moments of this family. When Jamie declares "I love you more than I hate you," one has to believe that he means it.
Winsome Brown makes her Harvard debut as Edmund unforgettable. Again, the Edmund that Gammons has chosen to spotlight has lost his affinities to King Lear's "naturally" volatile Edmund--he is too hard-edged, too sophisticated. The Edmund who imagines himself better-suited to being a seagull and who reveres the Decadent poets should be more high-strung, sensitive and romantic. Edmund should have only occasional success in aping Jamie's cynicism.
The characters in O'Neil's Long Day's Journey have two ways of living in the fog they so desperately seek--either live the lie of the Norman Lear family, or drink themselves into oblivion. The actors in this production do not appear drunk enough to make their concessions natural. O'Neil's stage directions speak of a "real, if alcoholic, affection" expressed between Tyrone and Edmund, but this never becomes apparent. O'Neil; emphasized human kinship as a source of isolation but also of communality--O'Neil's love for his third wife empowered him to write this play and stare his own tragedies in the face.
Ben Waltzer's performance as the father hints at inexperience. He stumbles through some lines, and his gestures are occasionally awkward. Karl Lampley created a respectable Jamie, although he does not project as much "Broadway diction" robustness as O'Neil delincates for the role.
Although O'Neil described Long Day's Journey as the story of the "four haunted Tyrones," rarely have they been presented as four equally tragic protagonists. Jamie or Tyrone are often remembered as the main protagonist due to legendary performances by Jason Robards, Jr. Interestingly, Gammons has chosen to put Edmund and his disease (all references to consumption are removed, his disease now presumably AIDS) center stage, but Winsome Brown certainly merits the primacy accorded her character.
Gammons's set for Long Day's Journey stunningly evokes an abstract dream world. Mary's ladder leads to a very physical dream world of morphine in an upstairs room, but even the ground-level activities of this family take on a nightmarish eeriness. The backs of the four chairs are conspicuously unmatched and resemble the outline of a coffin. The set may be too aesthetically pleasing to fit Mary's description of her cheap home, but that in fact only increases our sense of her delusions.
In Gammons's adaptation of Long Day's Journey, there is no "day," no semblance of contentment. From beginning to end, the audience must confront the unmitigated desolation of the Tyrone family. And if this reading provides less solace, it is nonetheless compelling.