This is a painfully intimate drama staged on an intimate scale.
"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us," observes a haunted Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night.
That statement is certainly true for Mary and her family -- and for many of us in the audience, no doubt. The Tyrone family, while bound by a fierce love, is also irreparably damaged by alcoholism, drug addiction, death and dreams that never came to be.
It's heady, bleak stuff, and in 2009 it is easy to take plays, movies and books about dysfunctional families -- look, we even have a name for them now! -- for granted. But O'Neill was a pioneer of this kind of gritty, realistic look at an American family and its problems.
In dedicating the script to his wife Carlotta in 1941, O'Neill called it a "play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood." Indeed, the highly autobiographical play was a means for O'Neill to excise some of his personal demons, though he did not allow it to be staged in his lifetime.
But what of American Players Theatre's take on this dark American classic? As the third and final play to open this season in APT's new indoor venue, Journey, which opened Thursday night, again demonstrates how the Touchstone Theatre is allowing the company to produce fare that wouldn't work "up the hill."
This is a painfully intimate drama staged on an intimate scale; as the audience, we feel as if we are literally in the Tyrones' house. Subtle facial expressions are crucial; in fact, O'Neill's instructions for the actors in his script are almost ludicrously detailed, particularly for Mary.
In that regard, APT core company actor Sarah Day really delivers. As the morphine-addicted mother of two dissolute sons and the wife of a traveling actor, Mary was, for me, the most disturbing character. Day must play her both sober and under the influence of morphine, and it's important that we see not only the destroyed person she has become, but traces of the hopeful, innocent young girl she once was.
Lighting design by Jason Fassl brings out the dramatic planes of Day's face as she delivers some of her most potent speeches.
As James Tyrone, Sr., Kenneth Albers (a frequent director at APT) brings a kind of restrained naturalism to his role. Not that James is restrained -- it's just that Albers doesn't overplay it. His tenderness and love for Mary are believable.
Rounding out the major roles are Jim DeVita as the older brother, Jamie, and Darragh Kennan as the younger one battling tuberculosis. DeVita deftly captures both sides of Jamie: charming rascal and cruel, bitter drunk.
Kennan, except for the points in which his character, Edmund, lashes out, possesses an understated grace. That makes it all the more satisfying when he soars with his longer speeches in the fourth and final act.
Under the direction of John Langs, this is an exceptional and well-chosen cast. My only quibble was with a little wobbliness or inconsistency in the Irish accent of the maid character (Leia Espericueta), though she also brings some welcome lightness to the proceedings in her scenes.
The set is spartan, which at first seems little ironic; the sets for APT's outdoor stage, exposed as it is to the elements, are usually grander. But there's a clear artistic reason for Nathan Stuber's minimalist set. Journey, while set in 1912 (a fact given away primarily by the costumes), needs a kind of timelessness for its tale of a family's emotions stripped bare. A stage decked out in period frippery could easily detract from the story rather than enhance it.
"Journey" is a long evening of theater, clocking in at over three and a half hours (including two intermissions). APT's finely executed production makes it a worthwhile endeavor, though, and a fascinating study in family dynamics and the ways in which the choices some members make affect the others.
It might be easy to think the elder James' decision to pursue a life as a traveling actor has ruined the rest of the family's chance at happiness, but is it really so easy? Journey gives one just as much to think about the morning after as in the moment, which underscores why it's still relevant today.