HERCULEAN Harrowing, heartrending performances by Will Lyman and Karen MacDonald anchor New Rep’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Papa! Can't you lay off me!" asks the younger James of the elder as "the four haunted Tyrones" are just beginning to scratch the surface of the emotional spelunking that will become Long Day's Journey into Night (presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through April 22). The answer, of course, is that none of the fiercely loving, recriminating clan of Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece can lay off or let go of one another. Theirs is an endless, booze-fueled Strindbergian dance that drains both participants and witnesses. And at New Rep, under the astute and sympathetic direction of Scott Edmiston, it is performed with great pain and tenderness by a quartet committed less to grandstanding than to what O'Neill called "old sorrow."
Edmiston takes seriously the playwright's classification of his family as "fog people"— ghosts, as it were, haunting their shared and inescapable past even as they rehash it ad infinitum over the course of a summer's day in 1912. In Janie E. Howland's set and Charles Schoonmaker's costumes, Monte Cristo Cottage is a spectral if lace-curtained affair, its inhabitants clad in cream and white — until the men doll up in dapper dark suits to leave the house. The stark change only emphasizes how trapped mother Mary remains, still in white, increasingly encased in her morphine wrapper and tied to the threadbare home she hates.
I have seen this herculeanif almost unbearableplay many times, most recently in the Tony-winning 2003 revival that featured Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard. The New Rep staging may not beam that kind of starlight, but it is firmly anchored by Boston eminences Will Lyman and Karen MacDonald, who memorably teamed as another haunted couple, Joe and Kate Keller of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, for the Huntington Theatre Company in 2010. They play the elder Tyrones, miserly matinee-idol-in-twilight James and his adoring if resentful wife, Mary, who traded dreams of the nunnery and concert pianism for a life on the road, bearing and raising her sons in the cheap hotels where James billeted his barnstorming theater company. It was in one such establishment, following the birth of O'Neill stand-in Edmund, that she became addicted to the morphine prescribed to ease her postpartum pain.
Lyman's still-handsome James, friskily romantic after breakfast (if already riding his sons), becomes an intense and riveting pillar of disappointment as he watches his wife, sober for two months, slip away. And MacDonald captures the jarring zigzag of Mary's drift, ricocheting among coquettishness, beseeching, denial, self-justification, and logorrheic attack. One can quibble at interpretation — Lyman's James doesn't supply the set-piece description of his Dickensian youth with enough drama to contrast with Edmund's morbid poesy in the long father-son exegesis of act four; MacDonald's final scene is more cutely than dreamily girlish. But these are harrowing, heartrending performances, next to which those of Nicholas Dillenburg and Lewis D. Wheeler as sons Edmund and Jamie are tougher to measure. Dillenburg is convincingly anguished and ill, but his sea-soaked attempt to explain himself to his father as "a stranger . . . who must always be a little in love with death" seems rote. Wheeler is a fine actor, and he exudes an ironic charm as the wasted, self-lacerating Jamie. But he needs to trade some of his tears for more vitriol.