“Long Day’s Journey into Night”

photo courtesy of John Lamb

Play:        “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Group:        Muddy Waters Theatre

Venue:        Kranzberg Black Box, Big Brothers Big Sisters Building, 501 North Grand

Dates:        November 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21

Tickets:    $20-$25; contact 314-799-8399 or www.muddywaterstheatre.com

Story:    It’s an August day in 1912 and the Tyrones are gathered at the family’s summer home in New London, Connecticut.  Breakfast has been served, and patriarch James Tyrone relaxes with a post-meal cigar.  The 65-year-old actor has made a successful life playing it ‘safe’ on the stage with a familiar role, and also has amassed considerable wealth that he keeps in flux while dabbling in questionable real estate investments. Wife Mary has recently returned from time in a sanatorium for treatment of her ‘condition,’ an affliction her husband and sons fear she is lapsing into once again.

    Mary frequently conjures memories of her potential, both as a concert pianist and as a would-be nun, abandoned when as a young woman she fell in love with the older, dashing actor.  Both parents are disappointed with Jamie, whose drinking and debauchery have tempered his reputation as a performer himself.  All of them are concerned about Edmund, whose travels in the merchant marine have brought him incessant coughing they fear is the onset of tuberculosis.  Bitter memories, resentment about James’ stinginess and perpetual backbiting, alternating with desperate attempts at love, permeate this day in the life of the Tyrone clan.

Highlights:    Muddy Waters Theatre, which devotes each season to the works of one playwright, concludes its seventh year with a riveting production of a play considered in the pantheon of the American theater.  “Long Day’s Journey into Night” is an iconic standard, an autobiographical look by O’Neill at his Irish Catholic upbringing and deeply troubled family that garnered the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play years after he completed the exhaustive work in 1942.  He stipulated it was not to be published until 25 years after he died, but ultimately it was staged in 1956, three years after his death.

    Under co-artistic director Cameron Ulrich’s probing direction, Muddy Waters’ presentation is by turns exhaustive, exhilarating, transfixing, sweeping, stunning and remarkable in its execution.  Anchored by a brilliant performance by Kari Ely as the troubled matriarch Mary, it’s an absorbing and compelling rendition, even if certain aspects fail to achieve greatness.  Ulrich maintains a steady pace over the course of its four acts and three and a half hours of performance time, smoothly integrating fine technical aspects as well as superb acting to effectively tell O’Neill’s haunting tale.

Other Info:    A look at major historical productions cited in Wikipedia shows an impressive array of talented performers who have immersed themselves in this dark classic, but it’s difficult to imagine another actress giving a superior performance to Ely’s masterful interpretation of Mary.  She captures every ounce of the character’s patrician demeanor as well as her desperate fragility and suffocating loneliness.  It’s a commanding and totally convincing performance that dominates the presentation.

    Joshua Thomas and Aaron Orion Baker contrast sharply as the elder and younger sons, respectively.  Thomas is a study in controlled self-loathing and capitulation to cynicism and failure, a man whose own talents and abilities have been belittled and stripped of any dignity by his carping parents.  Baker shrewdly depicts Edmund’s sensitive tendencies as well as his worries and concerns about both his own declining health and his mother’s lapses into her own addiction.

    Jennifer Theby is outstanding in the minor role of the servant Cathleen, bringing a rich Irish brogue and a delightful interpretation of the lusty lass’ contributions to the goings-on in the household as well as providing some much needed comic relief to the play’s relentless tragedy.  As James, Robert Ashton does a creditable job with a fastidious approach to the elder Tyrone’s quirks and failings, particularly his miserly devotion to money before his own family, but he never conveys the fearsome power that Tyrone wields with his wife and adult sons, lessening the production’s potential impact.

    Ulrich’s direction is almost balletic as he choreographs the relentless sniping between clan members as they erupt at the most innocuous statements.  Their toxic attraction is accentuated with some pointedly illustrative lighting by John Ryan which is often intentionally dim, while Mark Wilson’s atmospheric set includes some quaintly shabby furniture and curtains that epitomize the seaside fog that escalates Mary’s mental anguish.  Theresa Loeb’s costumes dress each character in appropriate fashion, with a somber sound design contributed by Jerry McAdams and haunting original music by guitarist Ryan Spearman that sets the mood for the production.

    Getting a chance to see this theatrical gem is a rare opportunity. Despite a few foibles along the way, Muddy Waters’ presentation is a richly rewarding treasure.

Rating:    A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.