To Jamie, With Love and Squalor

Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill directed by Ron Daniels at the American Repertory Theater Student Rush Tickets $12; call the box office for more information

In the wrenching fourth act of Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical "Long Day's Journey into Night," Jamie, the older brother, grabs the O'Neill character and begs "Please don't forget me-- give me credit!". In "Journey", Jamie gets his wish; O'Neill encapsulates his ultra-dys-functional family, renamed "Tyrone", for one claustrophobic day in their Connecticut summer house, circa 1912. Though the play presents an equally hopeless portrait of each beleaguered Tyrone, it is the figure of Jamie, especially as played by Bill Camp in the ART's new production, around whom the plays' energies and tensions expand and contract.

Since its debut 30 years ago, the members of the doomed Tyrone family have become stock characters on the American stage, as familiar, and as problematic, as our own families. Edmund (Michael Stuhlbarg), the character representing O'Neill himself, is the frail, morbid young poet who in the course of the titular "day" finds that his mysterious "summer cold" is a case of deadly consumption, or tuberculosis. Worry over his weakening condition has driven his mothlike mother, Mary (Claire Bloom) to succumb to her addiction to morphine, a drug she has been hooked on since Edmund's birth 24 years earlier.

Miserly father James (Jerome Kilty) worsens matters by denying the seriousness both of Mary's drug use andof Edmund's illness, trying to scrimp on a sanitarium for Edmund and taking out his anxieties on his elder son, the failed actor Jamie (Bill Camp). Jamie, already a depressed and cynical alcoholic, is now devastated by his mother's relapse and brother's illness, blaming his father's stubborn cheapness for both. As the day wears on, accusations, guilt and motivation for inexplicable past acts are revealed one by one, until a tragic pattern emerges, which the characters seem hopeless to escape.

Only Jamie seems concerned with breaking this cycle, however unsteadily, and it is for this uncertain passion that the character of Jamie remains the most difficult, compelling and catalytic of the play. Bill Camp, assuredly the ART's most urgent talent, brings fine skill to his portrayal of Jamie, ferreting out each minor and irresistible motivation, each thread of resentment and desperate love for his family which subtly bombard the young man. The dynamism of Camp's performance is apparent in the variety of moods and postures his Jamie takes as he emotionally gropes for a solution to save his mother and brother, and this studied totality makes Camp as compelling to watch reacting to other character's lines as delivering his own. His wordless pantomime of his mother's addiction is the most frightening moment of the play. Camp's performance shows a fine understanding of his character but he allows the audience to arrive at their own analysis of the many details of Jamie's actions and words, rather than delivering one, polished note for them to readily consume.

Such spoonfeeding is, unfortunately, the problem of some of the other characters in the work, though the script is somewhat to blame for this. Claire Bloom, for example, gives a seamless performance as Mary, nervous grasping hands, wild eyes, hysterical overennunciation and all. The problem with her portrayal of the Mary we all know and pity is just that--we all know her. While surely a weak Mary would foul the chemistry of any production of "Journey," in this case, a too-polished Mary merely fails to hold our attention the way she obviously holds the attention of the other Tyrones. This leaves an unsettling imbalance to the play's energy, with the effect of shifting attention to the other figures, especially Jamie-- an effect, ironically, which is itself an innovation on the conventional staging of "Journey."

Bloom does bring a new read to the role of Mary in a few scenes in which the mother is joins her husband and sons in the battle of recriminations, accusations, and criticism. The Tyrone family suffers not only because of their mother's inabilityto show love, but because of her all too lucid ability to target and wound them. She is hardly the harmless, mad Ophelia to which Jamie ironically compares her. Mary hands out venom, not posies.

A similar problem arises over the character of James, played genially by Jerome Kilty. James sounds only one note, however solidly, for the first three acts of the play--miserly, grumpy, critical, nationalistic in that way peculiar to formerly poor Irish-Americans. Real character development for James comes only in the fourth act, in a monologue in which he admits to Edmund the mistakes that ruined his career. Unfortunately, he then promptly leaves the stage, so that any readjustment of our understanding of his character must come retrospectively, reconsidering his earlier actions with this new information. The effect is poignant, yes, and mimetic of the way all children reach an understanding of their parents much too late, certainly-- but at the expense of saddling the first two hours of the play with an apparently boring, two-dimensional character.

Michael Stuhlbarg, as Edmund, gives the most unsteady performance of the protagonists, at some moments scintillating, at others invoking a sit-com like shrillness as Edmund screams at all the other characters to shut up. Again, the problem is partially with the role-- the Edmund character, a stand in for the playwright himself, must serve as straight man to the other characters' various emotional defenses and attacks, a non-character for them to play against.

But in the moments in which O'Neill allows Edmund "the touch of a poet", the artistic leanings present in O'Neill himself at the time the play is set, the writing is some of the best of the play. Stuhlbarg rises to the occasion with an intoxicating conviction and a fine control of intonation and gesture belying his top-notch training. His handling of the monologues describing Edmund's time at sea, and his recitation of the Decadent authors Edmund reads, are some of the finest, most piercing moments of the evening. The moments immediately proceeding these, where Stuhlbarg performs a drunken Edmund as if the character had suddenly become deranged, are not.

"Journey" is not as obviously renegade as some of Ron Daniels' recent productions at the ART, but a director's hand does seem to weigh heavily on much of the production. The staging often reflects the utter discomfort of the characters themselves. Many scenes find the Camp and Stuhlbarg seated on a bench facing the front of the stage, but awkwardly twisted so that their backs are turned to the audience, their faces hidden in the mock-wall of the set. At numerous other times, listening characters have their backs to the audience so that their facial reactions are hidden. Michael H. Yeargen's set design and Catherine Zuber's costumes have conspired to trap both house and family in one totalitarian color scheme, a choking beige, perhaps literalizing the overwhelming entrapment the characters feel-- certainly forcing the audience to want to escape, too.

The ART's new production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" does have a touch of the "take your medicine" about it. Daniels had the sense not to meddle too much with the play or its conventional performance style, to let it stretch out to its own onerous length of three hours and shoulder its own inexplicable burden of a housemaid's scattered cameos and her inevitably painful Irish accent. The play stands by itself, an unblinking testament to all-American dysfunction at the very site, the vacation home, where family togetherness is supposed to be at its best. Fortunately for us, this timeworn standard serves as a steady summit from which innovative actors like Camp, and occasionally Stuhlbarg, can find sure footing, then soar.