Although the opening night performance of Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Guthrie Theater on January 18 was the first time I’d seen the play performed in full, I have a strange personal history with Eugene O’Neill’s signature classic. When I was a teenager, my school drama coach sent me into competition performing both halves of a confrontation between Edmund Tyrone and his drunken father. Unsurprisingly—given that I was a pimply teenager who had never tippled anything beyond a sip of communion wine—the judges did not find my performance as a superannuated alcoholic to be particularly convincing.
The impression I was given that classic American dramas were largely about families getting plastered and yelling hard truths at one another turned out, of course, not to be far off. When whiskey appears on a set like John Lee Beatty’s beautifully ominous cutaway house, you know you’re just a couple of scenes away from someone unrolling a cotton tongue to tell his brother or father or sister or mother something he or she doesn’t want to hear about something they’ve both long tried to forget.
The challenge is making that scenario feel as fresh and raw as it was when O’Neill wrote it, its content so forthrightly autobiographical that he instructed his publisher not to make the work public until 25 years after his death. In the event, his estate only waited three—so bear that in mind if you’re considering writing a damning masterwork that your wife promises you she’ll keep in the vault.
Joe Dowling’s production isn’t likely to be the most daring Long Day’s Journey to be staged this season—that would be the upcoming Gonzo Group production at the James J. Hill House—but it’s a sturdy and satisfying show featuring a bravura performance by John Catron as elder son Jamie. It’s only during Catron’s second-act monologue that this production really catches fire, but it engages throughout.
Starring as old marrieds James and Mary Tyrone are Peter Michael Goetz and Helen Carey. The infallibly endearing Goetz—the cuddliest Scrooge in recent Guthrie memory—is a sympathetic James, a loyal husband to Carey’s morphine-addled Mary. Carey does creditably by the character, particularly during her desperate lapses into honesty, but once again Dowling distracts by casting a fine actress who’s noticeably older than her character. James might have been happier if he’d married a peer rather than a schoolgirl plucked from the convent—but as written by O’Neill he didn’t, and casting two actors who are similar in age throws the play’s balance off.
John Skelley is also solid as Jamie’s sick younger brother Edmund; he, Goetz, and Catron form a believably poignant triumvirate coping with Mary’s addiction and their own. The production doesn’t take many chances, but nor does it misstep. If you, like me, waited far too long to properly acquaint yourself with this American classic, this production offers a good opportunity to remedy that omission. For O’Neill’s timelessly tragic characters, remedies are much harder to come by.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.