REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE
2. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, directed by Sam Woodhouse, and AH, WILDERNESS!, directed by Douglas Jacobs. San Diego (CA) Repertory Theatre, Fall 1984 (Journey, 9/6-11/1; Wilderness, 10/4-11/18).
Long Day's Journey Into Night and Ah, Wilderness!, composed a decade apart, are often recognized as obverse and reverse of a single coin. Ah, Wilderness! tells the pleasant tale of what might have been, Long Day's Journey the sobering story of what really was the youth and young adulthood of the author. It would appear that the two plays produced in repertory might provide an interesting view into the life of the young O'Neill, the fantasies and the realities of his backward glance at the younger years.
Such is not necessarily the case. The two plays do not complement one another all that well. Such was the experience of the experiment in late 1984, when the San Diego Repertory Theatre, using many of the same performers in corresponding roles in the two plays, offered a disappointing Journey coupled with a delightfully different Wilderness.
There appeared to be nothing defective in the production's conception of Long Day's Journey. The view of the play was quite ordinary, and the editing (some forty minutes were cut from the text) was quite skillful. What seemed lacking was a grasp of the intensity inherent in the drama. In spite of all the performers' efforts, they appeared less than certain about the depths of personal feeling that are there in the text. While the play was hardly treated casually, and should not be a mere object of awe, the production didn't seem to notice the tremendous pathos that runs throughout the drama.
Although the acting was not amateurish, it failed to live up to the potential that exists in the play. Of the characters, Mary Tyrone (Jo Ann Reeves) was the weakest. Looking too young for her fifties, she failed to provide the sense of command that Mary strangely possesses over the other Tyrones. When excited, she tended to become garbled in her speech. An occasional line was mixed, spoiling the rhythm that "poet" O'Neill had spent a lifetime trying to perfect. And her "Then, Mother of God" line--a speech that may be more of a highlight for the character than her final, haunting line--was almost lost in a reverie that suddenly forgot the audience.
There was a bit too much Tyrone (played by Mitchell Edmonds) to suggest an actor who had managed well his matinee idol's figure all those years. Nor did Edmonds' rather high-pitched voice sound as if it could have done Shakespeare justice in the past. When he did quote the bard, he proved this very point. His bearing, also, lacked the professional touch.
While Jamie (Tavis Ross) had some difficulty with the drunk scene--he seemed much less "stinko" than a night's drinking should have left him--his performance was generally quite good. Thom Murray as Edmund was the best of the four Tyrones. His mustache made him a rather striking look-alike for the playwright, and he gave the role the kind of self-indulgence O'Neill showed himself in the play. Darla Cash's Cathleen was the strongest performance of all. She was truly the naive colleen with little trace of mere imitation of the part.
The set design (by Dan Dryden) played right into Mary's criticisms of Tyrone's miserliness. The tacky rattan furniture should have caused Tyrone to hurry right out to the nearest furniture mart. Scene changes, accomplished by drawing household drapes, worked well. Sound effects, like slamming doors, were very poor.
Surely Mary's weak performance did not destroy the play. She only exemplified, perhaps underlined, the weaknesses overall. Such a delicacy exists in Long Day's Journey that no more than a thin line might be drawn between the powerful exchanges of a tragic family and the pathetic whimpering of moderns who lack tragic stature. Reeves' Mary illustrated the point. In drama tuned so fine, it is not just that one weak character can spoil the play, but that one weakness in one character can do the damage. The company's Journey had that flaw, and more. That it tried was evident; its success simply didn't follow.
The San Diego Rep's Ah, Wilderness! Was as enjoyable as its Long Day's Journey was disappointing. Even the set (also by Dan Dryden) was much more clever--and functional, with scene changes integrated into the play's action. The conception of the play was changed somewhat, with songs introduced throughout (shades of Take Me Along). Songs suited to period and mood introduced and concluded the play and accompanied scene changes. While such tampering with a non-musical comedy usually spells disaster, this introduction of music proved a livening element.
For the most part, the players appeared much more at home with comedy than with tragedy. Although at times dangerously close to a Groucho Marx imitation, William Anton was a very good Nat, sly around the wife, shy with Richard at truth-telling time, and the picture of a small-city newspaper editor. He could be libertine, stern, angry, as the occasion demanded. Wife Essie (Jo Ann Reeves) suited the part, age, glasses, and all, quite well. Somewhat garbled in her speech when nerves got the better of her, she gave a good performance as a whole.
Sid (Ric Barr) was a proper riot, "a case if there ever was one." His inebriation was totally convincing. Lily (Barbara Murray) exuded the spirit of propriety that be-comes an old maid school teacher. Mildred (Amy Herzberg) acted the young girl who is a bit old before her time, enabling her to be a perfect foil for brother Richard. Tommy (Jonathan Granthan), whether singing in the interludes or playing his role, was a real trouper. Wayne Tibbetts, who doubled as both Arthur and Wint Selby, was much better in the latter role, although his slaughter of Arthur's solo numbers was very good.
The performance of Thom Murray as Richard did much to ensure the success of the play. All the assorted and terrible agonies of discovery and maturation were displayed in face and gesture, whether in protesting his innocence, testing his innocence, or preserving his innocence.
To laugh with O'Neill is an uncommon response. In the company's Ah, Wilderness! the humor came through; even the cast seemed to enjoy it. For all the musical additions to the text, the comedy played admirably.
The playing of O'Neill's only comedy and his most devastating tragedy in rotation provides an interesting look at the playwright and his work. The effort was a noble experiment; that it only partly succeeded does not negate the significance of the attempt. The company and its two directors are to be commended for valiant effort as well as for partial success.
--Eugene K. Hanson
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