Monday, May 31, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Long Day's Journey Into Night

The York Shakespeare Company has mounted a powerful production of the Pulitzer Prize winning Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill, his autobiographical classic about a day in the life of an Irish-American dysfunctional family. Set in the living room of the Tyrones' summer home circa 1912, the play reveals the deep-seated emotions, abandoned dreams, loves, hates, rivalries and regrets of James Tyrone (Bill Fairbairn), a former matinee idol and long-time alcoholic; Mary (Rebecca Street), his drug addicted wife; Jamie (Seth Duerr), his ne'er-do-well alcoholic older son; and Edmund (Alexander Harvey), his consumptive younger boy.

James was born dirt-poor but, through his own efforts, succeeded in reaching the pinnacle of the theatrical profession. As a one-time fine Shakespearean actor, he still treasures the memory of Edwin Booth's admiration for his work three decades earlier. But despite his love of the stage, his life-long financial insecurity prompted him to make a Mephistophelean bargain, trading the opportunity to continue to exercise his talents on the classic stage for the more lucrative life of a popular actor. While the life he opted for provided him with far greater income than he otherwise could have earned as a Shakespearean actor and enabled him to acquire considerable land of his own, it no longer seems worth it. Indeed, today he can't even quite recall what it was that he thought all that money might buy that could have been worth more to him than his love of the theatre. Not that that prevents him from remaining a skinflint, preferring to sit in the dark than to spend money on electricity. carefully monitoring the amount of his liquor consumed by his family, even balancing the value of his son's life against the cost of high quality medical care.

Mary, once deeply religious and with exceptional musical talent, educated in a convent, and torn between the dual dreams of a life as a nun and that of a concert pianist, was so caught up in her love for James that she abandoned all to become his wife. That choice worked out even worse for her than James' choice did for him. She has never known a true home, having spent her life with James on the road in dressing rooms and cheap hotels. She has borne three sons, watching her first-born grow to become a lazy, hedonistic, alcoholic lout; losing her second son (and blaming herself for his death); and seeing her youngest boy so sickly as to make her question whether he might not have been better off, had he never been born. And along the way, she became addicted to morphine which has led her to withdraw into a world of fantasy.

Jamie, James first-born son, is a deep disappointment to his father (his mother, Mary, is in general denial where her sons are concerned). Jamie has thrown away his own theatrical talent, content to sponge off his father and spend his time whoring and in drunken revelry. His love-hate relationship with his younger brother, the consumptive Edmund, is tinged with schaadenfreude. And Edmund, a sensitive, alienated, nihilistic poet, now suffering from consumption and at death's door, confronted with his father's partial abandonment, his mother's insanity, and his brother's evil destructiveness, is a truly lost boy.

The interplay among the four family members, lightened just a bit by Cathleen (Julie Jesnick), a junior member of their household staff, has the makings of a challenging theatrical experience in the hands of a talented cast. And this cast is certainly up to the challenge. Bill Fairbairn as James Tyrone does a commendable job in expressing his inextricably tangled emotions of love, anger, fear, regret, hate, and sorrow over his own lost opportunities, his wife's mental state, his disappointment in his older son, and his younger son's illness. And Seth Duerr, the founder and artistic director of The York Shakespeare Company, who both directed this production and plays the role of Jamie very effectively, can take pride in both achievements.

Alexander Harvey was exceptionally convincing as Edmund, reflecting the tortured angst of youth, a child's love for a mother who is drifting away from him into her own insane world, a boy's recognition of his father's true nature, the belated understanding of his relationship with his brother, and the devastating awareness of his own imminent mortality. But it is Rebecca Street, who made her debut with The York Shakespeare Company in this production, who deserves to be singled our for special praise. Her multi-leveled portrayal of Mary reflects her despair over her loss of faith, her state of denial over her younger son's illness and older son's debauchery, her simultaneously undying love for her husband coupled with her anger at his alcoholism, parsimony and failure to attend to her need for a stable home, her suffering from unmitigated guilt over the loss of her second child, and her drifting in and out of addictive and non-addictive states, sanity and insanity. Hers is a commanding performance and this is a production well worth seeing.

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