Long Day's Journey into Night
HOME and Citizens Theatre
Before Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill was the great American naturalist playwright who—this play indicates—was a great influence on both of the later writers. Long Day's Journey, his most autobiographical work, was first produced three years after his death but earned him his fourth Pulitzer Prize.
Like the Tyrones in the play, O'Neill's own father, also James, was a successful actor with an eldest son called Jamie; the names of the other two sons have been transposed for the play, so it was Eugene who died in infancy from measles caught from his brother and Edmund who reads Nietzsche and Baudelaire and contracts TB.
In both reality and the play, the mother—Ella Quinlan O'Neill and Mary Tyrone—suffered greatly with her last pregnancy and was prescribed morphine, which caused long-lasting issues with addiction.
Right from the start of the play, set in August 1912 at the Tyrones' summer home, you can feel the tension between members of a family that display their intense love and support for one another but are dancing around topics that they want to both confront and avoid. The atmosphere comes from some great writing, but is also communicated through the furtive glances, tense pauses and overlapping delivery of a production with a great sense of rhythm and timing and some very precise and detailed acting performances.
This is a family that is used to communicating by shouting, raising long-held sore issues that they know will hurt the others until one of them goes too far and backs down, apologising profusely. However, this is the opposite of soap opera: as in real life, a lot goes unsaid as issues are hinted at or communicated through gestures rather than being confronted 'on the nose' to spell them out to the audience.
On this day, they all suspect, but won't admit, that Mary is slipping back onto the "dope", but she is offended when this is even hinted at. They also try fooling themselves that Edmund's cough is just a summer cold rather than the onset of 'consumption'. Jamie, a fiery alcoholic, has nicknamed his father 'Gaspard' after the miser in The Bells of Corneville and blames many of their troubles on his penny-pinching.
But amongst all of the accusations and retributions, there is genuine love and concern and even some laughter. The long scene in which James tells Edmund about his upbringing, not as a stick to beat him with for once but to explain his own deficiencies, is genuinely moving, only to be punctured by Jamie stumbling in drunk to attack his father before confessing his own sins.
Dominic Hill's production somehow manages to keep that tense atmosphere for three and a quarter hours—I found myself gripping my notebook tightly more than writing in it—which must be exhausting for a cast who all perform flawlessly, all managing to draw our sympathy as well as our frustration.
George Costigan's James Tyrone is the flawed patriarch who tries to rule his family but ends up more as a little boy lost. Sam Phillips as Jamie is bitter and resentful but filled with his own guilt, while Lorn Macdonald's Edmund is caught between them, understanding but also angry at both.
Bríd Ní Neachtain gives a tour-de-force performance as Mary, with a wide emotional range to cover, spitting out a constant stream of words every time she appears. Dani Heron as servant Cathleen brings in some much-needed light relief but fits well into this troubled household.
The day's events are played out on Tom Piper's set of the whole house, complete with staircases, but just as a wooden frame; the clear plastic sheeting that makes up the walls not only hides nothing from the audience but gives the look of an abattoir, as they all rip one another to pieces.
This is a long night (with the earlier start time of 7PM) but the time passes quickly for the audience, even if for the characters it must seem like the day will never end.
Reviewer: David Chadderton