- Long Day’s Journey Into Night dir. by Joe Dowling
It is hard to think of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night being a humorous play. But the Guthrie Theater’s production of O’Neill’s semiautobiographical classic produced not just occasional giggles but laughter—and a lot of it. As an O’Neill scholar, my first instinct was, admittedly, harsh: no, no, no, this is all wrong. But the process of laughing naturally leads to euphoria, so at some point I acquiesced to it. The 1939–41 play is not only the product of a life but further captures the tragedy of its historical moment (i.e., the expansion of the Second World War that was preceded by the Great Depression and the Great War). Yet in this production, it sprung to life as a twenty-first-century tragicomedy. The Guthrie Theater created a successful vision of an O’Neill play for our contemporary sensibilities: rejuvenating the play, but also—potentially—extending the play’s life as a masterpiece for a twenty-first-century audience.
The staging was as traditional as can be—the Monte Cristo cottage was set just as O’Neill’s stage directions read. But while the house had the appropriate signs of disrepair, the occupants—the Tyrones and Cathleen—did not show these same signs. Instead, they filled the house with a warmth and a zest for life hard to previously imagine in the Tyrone home: Mary (Helen Carey) was a teasing figure and mentally present, cogent, and self-aware until the very end when she is lost in her morphine; James (Raye Birk, the understudy, who performed the role the afternoon I saw the play, in place of Peter Michael Goetz) was not so stubborn, miserly, or curmudgeonly, as his warm smiles and small laughs smoothed out his normally crusty demeanor; Jamie (John Catron) was a lovable cross between Wally Cleaver and Willy Loman’s boys; [End Page 273] and Edmund (John Skelley) was neither “thinner than he should be” nor “plainly in bad health,” though “his eyes appear[ed] feverish.” And Cathleen (Ladisa Sexton) was not just the play’s comic relief but an absolute riot: her increasing drunkenness was matched with an increasing comedic physicality (taking the form of slapstick-like comedy and a hearty loquaciousness) that produced shrills of laughter from the audience.
How did this all work, and how did it offer up a new interpretation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night? There were two key acting/directing choices that allowed everything else to fall into place: Edmund was clearly never going to die from consumption, and Mary was only lost to morphine when she makes her final entrance at the end of the play. Skelley’s Edmund did have dark rings around his eyes and was generally of a smaller build, but his body was not sickly (in his gait and gestures and makeup); his voice was strong; he had a verve for life. This verve for life was strongest especially when he was telling stories: for example, the story about James’s tenant Shaughnessy and his neighbor Harker was delivered with the humor and warmth of an Irish storyteller. Frankly, in addition to not looking frightfully ill, Skelley did not seem all that sick emotionally either, especially during Edmund’s long speech about the fog, which was not delivered with pangs of despair but with the enchanting rhythms of a poet doing an intimate reading. Because Edmund never seemed like he was going to die, Mary did not come across as though she were blind to reality and lost to her past, making her famous line, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too,” seem like she was imparting wisdom rather than obliviously living in her past. Helen Carey’s Mary delivered many lines with, so to speak, a wink to the other characters in the room, letting them—and the audience—know that she is not just cognizant of the situation but...