LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, dir. Geraldine Fitzgerald. New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater, March 18, 1981 - present: A REVIEW.
Perhaps what is most striking about the Richard Allen Center's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, now installed at Joe Papp's Public Theater, is the play itself. One cannot escape the conclusion that it is a great play. A fine cast and intelligent director in no small way prompt this thinking, to be sure. And what is more, the production demonstrates in no uncertain terms the universality of the play and O'Neill's skill as a playwright.
Director Geraldine Fitzgerald was certainly farsighted enough to appreciate the fact that black actors--or any other group of actors, for that matter--could play Long Day's Journey and make it work. And it is to O'Neill's lasting credit that while he wrote the play about members of his own family, and included in it many of the bizarre details and idiosyncratic incidents which epitomized them, he still managed to create a work of genius with undeniably broad appeal.
The Richard Allen Center's production is less an instance of taking O'Neill's play and infusing it with elements of black American experience--in fact, I saw none--than a demonstration that people, whatever their race or ethnic background, are complex, and that modern civilization frequently does little to help us understand, or live contentedly with, our natures. On the contrary, civilization seems to do everything in its power to prevent us from doing so--especially in the case of the Tyrone family.
Gloria Foster's Mary was effective and convincing. Each time that she reappeared on stage, she was that much more distant and alarmingly detached as the "poison" took its effect, till, finally, she was completely enveloped in the fog of the past and spoke in a possessed, small girl voice. One definitely felt that this Mary was by-the-book, with few surprises. Her laughter, though, was notably devastating and cutting when she recalled choice Tyrone follies; and her treatment of Jamie was extremely merciless when, on more than one occasion, she taunted him about his character and habits.
I missed out on Al Freeman, Jr.'s Jamie and saw understudy Thommie Blackwell's version instead. Mr. Blackwell is an energetic actor who put his all into the role, but he was a rather young looking and relatively trim Jamie. I found myself at times yearning for more of an old soak sort, whose hardboiled philosophy of life would flow as effortlessly from his lips as would his boozy breath. Mr. Blackwell seemed a trifle self-conscious when it came to his lines. But his performance in Act Four was inspired and forceful.
Earle Hyman's James Tyrone was memorable and special. Director Geraldine Fitzgerald, in a Showbill interview, credits Arvin Brown (who was responsible for the Off Broadway production of Long Day's Journey in 1971, in which Miss Fitzgerald played Mary) "with the insight that the Tyrone family is moved by love, not hatred." Nowhere was this more in evidence than in Mr. Hyman's performance. From the start, the elder Tyrone demonstrated affection and concern for his wife in a most touching and gentle fashion. But no matter how much love and understanding there may be in his heart, he is an utterly baffled and bewildered man. His hurt, when he finds out that Mary has once again started her habit, is truly deep and extremely painful.
Tyrone's infamous penuriousness and his set, old fashioned beliefs come across not so much as bad qualities but as eccentricities--the eccentricities of a man who, in fact, has lived a lot of life. We see clearly that Tyrone, for all of his drawbacks, is the only whole person in the play. Mary is lost to the past, Jamie to the present, and Edmund is just beginning to fit the pieces of his own life together. Life has changed dramatically since the elder Tyrone was a young man, and what was once good and true no longer washes. But Tyrone, though confounded, has not yet given up. He is a man of contradictions and strong character, a fascinating fellow. And Mr. Hyman sees to it that we don't doubt it for one minute. In the end, Tyrone has our respect, or, at the very least, our sympathy. The production was worth seeing if only for this one Tyrone.
Peter Francis-James appeared quite comfortable as Edmund. He acted truly like a son, and it was impossible to believe that Gloria Foster and Earle Hyman were not his parents, so convincingly did the three act together. But Mr. Francis-James is extremely young looking, and it is a trifle difficult to picture him under that squarerigger's bowsprit, being at one with the universe.... However, a certain innocence and naiveté are necessary to the role and play, and Mr. Francis-James provided these qualities skillfully.
Samantha McKoy as Cathleen was also quite natural, and funny as well. Her performance offered proof that O'Neill had an excellent sense of humor as a playwright and, quite remarkably, was able to exercise it liberally throughout Long Day's Journey.
The Richard Allen Center's production was exciting. It allowed one to meet a magnificent James Tyrone. And it underscored the fact that the "fog people" are just people and that they cannot be classified by their skin color or by any other such criteria.
WHAT OTHERS SAID. Edith Oliver ("At
Home Again with the Tyrones," The New Yorker,
As evidence of how different critical reactions can be, Newsweek's Jack Kroll ("Passionate Journey," April 20, 1981, p. 104) found Gloria Foster "superb as Mary, ... her Greek-mask face fixed with terrifying beauty on the past as she becomes the ghost of herself, recalling the youthful dream of purity that has been shattered by her life." And he dwelt, more than anything else, on the play's universality: "the Tyrones are not just the O'Neills transmuted into art. What happens to them is both epic and tragic; it's an emotional Iliad, an internecine war that produces the great tragic entity of the modern world--waste, pure human waste." And the cast, who "become a true family in the ultimate family play," also achieve universality: "They play it for the universal rhythms and passions that override the play's social specifics, and it works." Kroll's only reservation concerned the extensive cuts "that reduce the play to a standard two and a half hours. This work is a long day's journey; to have its greatest effect it needs that sense of time as emotional geology working relentlessly to accumulate its massive seismic forces, which eventually explode."
As Jack Kroll disputed Edith Oliver's reservations about Gloria Foster, Mel Gussow, reviewing the original opening at the Richard Allen Center ("Black Cast Stages O'Neill," New York Times, March 3, 1981, p. C10), shared none of Ms. Oliver's reservations about Earle Hyman, whose "mellifluous voice and grand manner," that set the "magisterial dimensions of his role early in the evening," earned his total praise. But, like Ms. Oliver, he had reservations, until the "mad scene," about Gloria Foster's Mary, which he found lacking in the necessary "fragility": "When she glances out the window and comments, 'How thick the fog is,' she makes a simple statement sound as if it were a weather report delivered by Lady Macbeth."
But Ms. Foster won particular praise from Thulani Davis ("Black Irish," Village Voice, March 18, 1981, p. 84) for creating a Mary Tyrone that was "unusually substantial": "Foster's occasional playfulness and snide tones give force to the idea that Mary had a few things she really wanted out of life before she deserted for the foggy shores of regret and nostalgia." And Davis disagreed with the nearly unanimous view of the other critics that, aside from Samantha McKoy's Cathleen, the performers eschewed any black mannerisms: "The actors ... do not ignore, as one reviewer suggested, their ethnicity. They put it to good use, converting the Tyrones into a black family of means and stature." --Ed. [Photographs of the production appear on page 14, and the Hirschfeld caricature of Earle Hyman as James Tyrone, Sr., appears on page 26.]
© Copyright 1999-2007 eOneill.com