Dallas — The Tyrone family is gathered on a hot, steamy summer day in 1912 at their summer home in Connecticut—the only one they own—to lacerate each other with precision, venom and wrenching regret, as only people who have known and loved and fought with each other for decades can do. Rich in piercing language and fleshy feeling, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is often considered the masterwork of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright many consider America’s greatest 20th century playwright.
Weighty with many excellent productions, O’Neill’s highly autobiographical last work was so personal, he left instructions for the play to be produced 25 years his death. The play premiered on Broadway in 1956, and won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize in 1957, four years after his death.
How perfectly aligned the stars over North Texas must be for Undermain Theatre, Dallas’ internationally acclaimed venue, to bring us this profoundly felt and handsomely staged production of O’Neill’s drama, directed with orchestral precision by Artistic Director Katherine Owens.
The four-act play, presented here in just under three swiftly flowing hours with two intermissions, frames the lives and relationships of the Tyrone family—a virtual mirror image of O’Neill’s own—in the compressed long day of the title.
James Tyrone (Bruce Dubose) is an aging matinee idol, the tight-fisted son of impoverished Irish immigrants, who won the heart of his wife Mary (Joanna Schellenberg), a provincial beauty who romanticizes her early life as the daughter of a bourgeoisie merchant, and who struggles with morphine addiction. Their ne’er-do-well sons are on hand for the carnage. Jamie (Shelby Davenport) is staggering through life as a third-rate actor in roles his father arranged. Young Edmund (Josh Blann), the figure for Eugene, is a sailor and wanderer, a poetry-crazed Romantic mesmerized by the French imagist Baudelaire and half in love with his diagnosis of terminal consumption.
As this original American dysfunctional family goes at each other, the fog rises, clears and rises again, both literally and metaphorically. Tirades begin with simple remarks about the hedge trimming at hand, and then flash instantly back to recriminations—or ecstasies—from the past. Mary blames James for her lonely miseries while touring with his theatrical company, and the loss of her soul to addiction because he hired the cheapest doctor he could find to attend the difficult birth of Edmund.
Both boys attack their father for making their mother “a dope fiend”, and for his miserly ways in everything from turning off lights to crappy real estate deals. Even their off-the-boat Irish maid (a raw and sassy Katherine Bourne) has learned to pour water in the whiskey so Mr. Tyrone won’t know the cook’s been appeased with a drink. Despite everyone wishing it were not so, the future continues to rise out of the past in a tragic inevitability the Greeks would call fate—or character, often one defining the other. Ghosts abound in this summer house—in the images and in the haunted language of all the Tyrone family.
Dubose’s James Tyrone is a handsome, aging actor, thickening in the middle, but resonant of voice and startlingly moving in his recollection of his mother’s sacrifices when he was growing up. He literally reaches out to Schellenberg’s haunted and delicate Mary, as she walks up and down on the porch, or turns beside him as he sits at the table—but she is almost beyond physical touching. Dark eyes wet with remembrance or flashing with anger, Schellenberg fiddles with her silver-gray hair-do, appearing to seduce her husband and sons with happy recollections one moment, then hissing out in hateful accusations of things past the next.
Davenport’s Jamie Tyrone is a virile, broad-shouldered, raucous force of drunken masculine misery. When he brags about loving fat whores and strong whiskey, he evokes both pity and disgust—a braggart and a pitiable lover, at once. In the late scenes with his little brother, you see his pain in his literal doubling over as he attacks the person he loves most in the world.
Josh Blann’s Edmund is a pale, absorbent sponge for the first act. His Edmund gains in presence and gravitas in the later scenes when he matches his father’s tales of family poverty with the fierce poetry of Baudelaire—and recollections of his own enveloping epiphanies experienced as a ship’s hand on the open seas. Blann delivers O’Neill’s ravishing lines with the cadence of dialogue and poetry. Quite a feat, all round.
John Arnone’s handsome set is a kind of daguerreotype of 20’s furniture and cottage architecture. Wide board walls and railed porches hold antique white wicker chairs and teak-colored chaise lounges, next to tables hung with lacey cloths and set with cut-glass whiskey decanters. Undermain’s huge concrete pillars are dressed in heavy rope, as if tied to a dock (O’Neill loved sea themes). The rear entrance, toward which everyone moves at the end of each act, is a wide black hole, a kind of past perfectly depicted with negative space.
Giva Taylor’s costumes are period perfect as well. From Jamie’s worn wing-tip shoes to Tyrone’s three-piece barhopping ensemble, we’ve entered another era. Mary’s dresses emphasize her willowy allure and fleeting beauty, especially when she appears in a white nightgown clutching her old bridal veil. The maid’s coarse fabric skirt lends an earthiness to all this ethereal stuff that “dreams are made on,” as the elder Tyrone keeps reminding us.
But the Bard is overruled in this play by Baudelaire’s advice to, “Be always drunken; nothing else matters. Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you will.” It’s all here—in the kind of passionate, calibrated production we’ve come to expect at Undermain.
Not to miss. Period.