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Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Reviewed by Yuko Kurahashi

 

Long Day’s Journey Into Night, directed by Licia Colombi. Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland Play House, Cleveland.  February 26-March 13, 2005.

When a director makes the decision to cut the original script in order to make a play more accessible to a contemporary audience, there is a risk of losing many of the important references and plot points.  However,  the recent production of O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941) produced by the Ensemble Theatre in Cleveland (Lucia Colombi, artistic director) while much abridged still retains the heart of the play and the characters’ struggles.  The production was a 2-hour performance, staged in an intimate studio theatre at The Cleveland Play House.

For Licia Colombi (Lucia Colombi’s twin sister), who directed the production, Long Day’s Journey, is  not only a special play for their 25th anniversary,  the 2004-2005 season. In May 1970, a group of students at Kent State staged Long Day’s Journey in a Unitarian church in Kent.  Licia Colombi (a theatre student at that time) played Mary Tyrone and her late brother Chris Colombi, Jr. played James Tyrone.  In the midst of the run,  anti-war demonstrations broke out,  causing the death of four students who were shot by the Ohio National Guard.  As a result, the show was moved to Karamu House in Cleveland which gave this group a temporary home.  Licia Colombi and her co-performers donated most of the box office revenue to the students who were injured in the demonstrations and shootings.

Written during one of the most productive phases of O’Neill’s career in spite of failing health (1940-1958), Long Day’s is, along with The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, and A Moon for the Misbegotten, considered one of O’Neill’s best plays.  Set in the New England summer home of the Tyrone family in 1912, the play explores the family’s past and its corrosive effects on their relationships.   Over the course of the play, the Tyrone family—James, Mary, Jamie, and Edmund—try to come to terms with the rifts among them that have developed over the past 20 years.

The small stage in Studio One at the Cleveland Play House—the Ensemble Theatre’s new home—becomes a small New London, Connecticut summer home with period furniture: a round oak table, a rectangular desk, two book cases, and a chaise. The audience sits on three sides of the stage which increases the intimacy of the production.  Licia Colombi and set designer Martin Cosentino create, with these limited set pieces,  the Tyrone family’s battleground by highlighting each acting space in relation to their textual, semiotic meanings.  For example, the desk and the round table are the place for the family gathering and arguments.  The desk, which has James and Mary Tyrone’s wedding photos, is transformed into the characters’ refuge from the family through alcohol and drugs. In Act III, when a tray with a bottle of whiskey,  glasses, and a pitcher of water are brought in next to it, the men get drunk on alcohol around this area.  In the meantime,  Mary slips off stage to use morphine and then, in a state of intoxication, returns to the desk to recount again and again the happiest time of her life when she lived in the convent before her marriage to James.  However these happy recollections then change into a tabulation of her grudges and regrets.   The round table first provides a space for a friendly family-gathering in the late morning.  Over the course of the play the round table becomes the site of explosive disagreements and expressions of contempt, jealousy, and hatred between the family members.  The two bookcases in the room represent the different values of James Tyrone and his son Edmund.  James Tyrone’s bookcase is filled with the works of Shakespeare,  Alexander Dumas, Victor Hugo, and Charles Lever.  This is contrasted with Edmund’s bookcase which, according to James Tyrone, contains “atheists, fools, and madmen” such as Voltaire,  Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Zola, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, Whitman, and Poe.  Cosentino, the set designer, places a small statue of Shakespeare between the bookcases to underscore James Tyrone’s uncritical admiration for these masterpieces while stubbornly refusing to accept his youngest son’s interest in different ways of seeing the world.

Robert Hawkes (James Tyrone), Annie Kitral (Mary Cavan Tyrone),
John Kolibab (James Tyrone, Jr.), Andrew Cruse (Edmund Tyrone)

The cast expresses the complex emotions of these sensitive characters.  Robert Hawkes, as James Tyrone, artfully portrays a selfish, stingy, long-forgotten Irish actor who cares only about material prosperity.  Though he captures the bully and arrogant qualities of James, Hawkes also shows his vulnerable side especially in front of the younger son, played by Andrew Cruse.  Cruse emphasizes his character’s youth with his directness, thus making this character with a fatal illness more alive and real, and the focal point of this production.  Annie Kitral, as the convent educated Mary who lives only in the past, shows a fragile middle-aged woman, yet with hints of the girl she used to be.  In the production Kitral’s soft and charming face, combined with her timid mannerisms, underscores her absolute helplessness and inability to live in the present—the real condition of Mary Ellen Quinlan O’Neill who the playwright mercilessly exposes.  With her subtle yet obvious nervous mannerisms and movement,  Kitral  successfully reveals what the character of Mary desperately tries to hide beneath the façade of properness: her psychological and physical instability,  her refusal to confront reality, her multitude of excuses and lies to avoid dealing with her life and family.  Jamie Tyrone, as portrayed by John Kolibab, is always drunk and arguing with the family members.  Yet,  Kolibab also shows his love for his parents and sibling—Jamie’s important characteristic which cohabits with his selfishness.  For example, his love for Edmund is tainted by his jealousy and a long-held sense of neglect and inferiority.  Kolibab successfully expresses the complexity of Jamie’s two opposing feelings toward his family.

While Long Day’s Journey focuses on the negative emotions of human beings Colombi also highlighted love and affection between the family in specific scenes.  For example, in the first scene, which features lighthearted conversation between James and Mary about breakfast—Mary’s beauty and James’ snoring—the play makes the family real and at least on the surface, one with affection and caring.  Also, late in the evening,  James and Edmund exchange their true feelings, including their regrets and contempt,  and they both reach a certain point of mutual understanding. The very end of the show, however,  overwhelms the surface feelings of the family, revealing,  one more time, the pain and anguish that they have suffered.  In the doorway, close to the desk, Mary appears with her old wedding dress over one arm.  James, Jamie and Edmund remain seated at the round table, continuing the rest of their journey into night.  Colombi created this amazingly moving “family portrait” in the fading light, crystallizing the family’s craving for mercy and forgiveness, and their futile attempt to reconstruct the shattered glass for the last time.

Yuko Kurahashi is Assistant Professor of Theatre at Kent State University.  She is the author of Asian American Culture on Stage: The History of the East West Players (Garland, 1999) and Multicultural Theatre (Kendall/Hunt, 2004).

 

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