With Long Day's Journey into Night, Muddy Waters Theatre lives up to its name

One can only imagine the sense of scandal that accompanied the 1956 Broadway premiere of Eugene O'Neill's magnum opus, Long Day's Journey into Night, which O'Neill did not allow to be staged while he was alive. Why not? Because as he strives for domestic tragedy, O'Neill unsparingly tears his family to tatters. His (thinly veiled) mother describes herself as "a lying dope fiend." His dissolute brother Jamie is drinking his way to an early grave. Most shocking of all, O'Neill depicts his father, the renowned and much beloved stage actor James O'Neill, as a Scrooge-like tightwad who would prefer to see his younger son Edmund (a surrogate for the playwright) succumb to consumption rather than pay to send him to a decent sanitarium.

This was all scandalous stuff in 1956, not so dissimilar from the furor that ensued in 1978 when Joan Crawford's daughter Christina exposed her mother's shortcomings in Mommie Dearest. Granted, Christina Crawford was not a Nobel Prize-winning playwright whose works had helped to shape the American theater. But today any hint of scandalous allure has long since removed itself from Long Day's Journey. No one remembers James O'Neill (here renamed James Tyrone). The kinds of revelations that shocked audiences in the 1950s are now common fodder for episodic TV dramas.

How does the play hold up more than 60 years after it was written in 1942? It remains a rare example of theater in the grand manner. Although the action plays out during eighteen hours, the plot actually consolidates eighteen years of accusations and humiliations into one sweltering day in August 1912. This is theater rendered large. It needs to be staged large, and it needs to be played large. Although the current Muddy Waters Theatre production is trying to sell the intimate Kranzberg playing space as a plus (as it was last year with their version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), on this outing the space is not an asset. To gaze upon this play up close is to be acutely aware of its maddening excesses and repetitions, is to be reminded that Long Day's Journey is a rough-hewn and unfinished work of art.

Family portrait: Eugene O'Neill's family isn't shown in the best light at Muddy Waters.
John Lamb
Family portrait: Eugene O'Neill's family isn't shown in the best light at Muddy Waters.

Details

Long Day's Journey into Night
Through November 21 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard.
Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors).
Call 314-799-8399 or visit www.muddywaterstheatre.com.

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As directed by Cameron Ulrich, Muddy Waters is presenting a production so still as to assume the aura of a staged reading. Only occasionally is this stillness broken up by sporadic moments of theatricality. Early in Act One, for instance, Mary Tyrone urges son Jamie to "take advantage of the sunshine before the fog comes back. Because I know it will." There are two fogs at work here. One rolls into this mildewed Connecticut home from Long Island Sound; the other is induced by drugs. Even as Kari Ely assures her concerned family that she has recovered from her morphine addiction, we gradually see her eyes grow vacant. Then at the end of the act, her voice suddenly chokes. "I have tried, James," she implores, as if pleading with her husband to forgive indulgences both past and future. "I have tried so hard." But such lightning-strike moments are isolated rather than accumulative.

Robert Ashton's family patriarch, the parsimonious James Tyrone, is also effective in brief flashes. His are flashes of anger, when he no longer can control his rage against the constant disappointments of his sons. But James Tyrone must be more than occasionally sharp. Tyrone must at all times exude a commanding presence; his very life is a performance. He must overwhelm us. Ashton, a genial actor, is miscast. Almost perversely, Jennifer M. Theby shines in the subordinate role of Kathleen, the Irish family maid. Although this minor part is usually a nonentity and barely even remembered, the specificity of Theby's work — the way she holds a glass or picks up a jacket — makes us see why Kathleen is the butt of so much family disdain. Theby's vibrancy is a guidepost as to what is needed throughout the evening. But when a director confuses shouting for excavation, when he chooses stillness over penetration, the result is likely to make for a long night.

Mark Wilson's set renders the night fog with gauzy curtains that ultimately surround the Tyrone living room. Their effect is like trying to watch the play through cataracts. Eventually I found it easier to take off my glasses and just listen to the words, as one would listen to an audio book in the car. Finally O'Neill's rhythms began to be heard. Aaron Orion Baker's consumptive younger brother Edmund rose to the challenge of confronting his father. The flair and innate elegance in Joshua Thomas' boozing wastrel of an elder brother made Jamie's fall all the more pathetic. As if through a gauze dimly, the play emerged.

 
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