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Editor: Frederick Wilkins
Suffolk University, Boston

Vol. VIII, No. 1
Spring, 1984


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REVIEWS OF O'NEILL PLAYS IN PERFORMANCE

1. LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, dir. Nicholas Rudall. Court Theatre (University of Chicago), April 12 - May 13, 1984.

The production of Long Day's Journey which closed on May 13 at the Court Theatre of the University of Chicago looked right in almost every respect. The setting looked right. It achieved--remarkably on an open, thrust stage--the sense of an enclosed interior entirely suitable to the enclosed quality of the life in the play. Yet the openness of that stage was also used effectively to convey the presence of sea, fog, and sky outside the house--beyond the porch which lay to the rear of the main acting area. The sense of a "horizon" which each character was seeking to get "beyond" was ever-present.

And the characters, with the exception of the Edmund, looked right. Tony Mockus was every inch a James Tyrone--ever the actor, ever the commanding figure, ever the "healthy" Irish pater familias who knows that drink is a "good man's failing" but who "never missed a performance in his life" because of it. And Scott Jaeck's Jamie bore an astonishing resemblance to Mockus (not achieved exclusively by makeup) which served him well during the early explosive confrontations between the two Jameses. Jaeck also made the balance between Jamie's caustic cynicism, savage self-castigation, and genuine altruism convincing--during the early acts, at least. Peg Small was similarly effective in conveying violently contrasting feelings--beautifully juxtaposing Mary Tyrone's warm and sincere concern for her family with the tremendous fear which prompts Mary's hysteria and her addiction. (Ms. Small looked more the part of the early 20th century lace-curtain Irish mother than any Mary I have seen, with the possible exception of Constance Cummings in the Laurence Olivier production.) Of Joseph Guzaldo's Edmund, however, all that can be said is that, for me, he did not look the part; and in spite of his obvious intelligence and competence as an actor, he did not fully understand the part. I had the feeling Guzaldo was playing the son in an Arthur Miller play rather than in an O'Neill play.

I also think the basic understanding of the play underlying this production was right. What I have elsewhere called the "rhythm of kinship" was here--that sense of the inherent love and even stability which underlies the sharp, utterly honest emotional alternations within and between the characters, involving hostility verging on violence immediately followed by uninhibited affection and the stated need for love and forgiveness.

Why, then, did I feel uncomfortable with this production--feel, in fact, that it was among the less successful productions of the play I have seen? Despite the director's basic understanding of the play, there seemed a misunderstanding about how the characters should respond in intensely emotional situations. Nicholas Rudall (the director) seemed to feel that each deeply felt reaction of a character, so forcefully stated in the lines themselves, needed to be driven home with an accompanying bit of histrionic action. There were so many violent gestures along the way that when actual violence is called for between Edmund and Jamie late in the last act, it felt anticlimactic. Similarly, each affectionate statement on the part of one character for another had to be accompanied by some at times grotesque gesture of affection. At one point, James, in a near-hysterical moment of enthusiastic affection for his younger son, dances around the stage with him and puckishly pulls his (Edmund's) shirt out of his trousers. This prepares us for Edmund's particularly desperate appearance during his next fit of emotional despair, but it seemed to me quite unsuited to this play and these characters. (Was this again an Arthur Miller-like touch?)

Along the same lines, the characters' disabilities felt exaggerated in this production. I am not talking about Mary's addiction, which Peg Smart handled most judiciously, but rather about Edmund's consumption and Jamie's drunkenness. At several points, Edmund's responses suggested the later stages of consumption, which is clearly inappropriate. Edmund's illness is at so early a stage that the six months predicted for his recovery should seem entirely convincing. And the chief characteristic of Jamie's drinking is that he is able to hold his alcohol so well. That is what makes his drinking so very lethal, as we see in A Moon for the Misbegotten. Jaeck achieves this quality early in the play, but in Jamie's all-important last-act appearance, Jamie was here made to seem blind drunk, barely able to control his movements. Much of the impact of Jamie's and Edmund's confrontation near the end of the play, and especially that of Jamie's "confession," was lost for me as a result. As Jamie tells us in Moon, he is always aware of his actions and statements when drunk--especially when he wishes he weren't.

My feeling of irritation at the conclusion of this production resulted, I think, from my sense that its deep understanding of the play was marred by the intrusion of excessive histrionics on the part of the characters. Part of O'Neill's triumph in writing Long Day's Journey lay in his ability to represent his closeness to his family with great understanding and still greater artistic control. The characters affect us as deeply as they do because we so completely empathize with what they feel. It takes away from our response to constantly see that feeling crudely acted out in the characters' stage behavior. This great play reveals its greatness best if the characters are brought before us with considerable economy of expression and gesture.

--Michael Manheim

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