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Loooong Day's Journey

Careful staging doesn't work, buddy

Talk about counterprogramming. South Florida playgoers tired of lightweight modern plays and musicals can find some heavy -- really heavy -- drama at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. The tiny troupe often takes on gargantuan projects, and its latest, Long Day's Journey into Night, is a monster. This three-hour-long tale of family torment is Eugene O'Neill's most personal and most renowned play -- a test of strength for actors and audience alike. In it, O'Neill takes a hard unflinching look at his own family's sorrow, a harrowing drama that still packs a wallop more than 60 years after it was written.

O'Neill's own life embodied the birth of modern American drama. His early years were marked by restlessness and failures. After dropping out of Princeton, he bounced from job to job, working for a while as a bit player in his actor father's theater troupe before turning to a string of laboring jobs -- as a cook, a reporter, and a sailor, hanging out with whores and drunks. A bout with tuberculosis put him in a sanatorium, which was a turning point: His wandering ceased, and he began to write plays, drawing from his own experiences. He was fortunate to find a theater company, the Provincetown Players, that embraced him as its resident playwright. Together, they scaled the heights of theatrical fame, as O'Neill's plays were trumpeted as a new beginning for the American stage.

But by the time he won the Nobel Prize for his work, his career began to tank. His plays fell out of favor, but O'Neill kept writing anyway, and his best work was from this later period; most were not published or produced until after his death in 1953. Such is the case with Long Day's Journey. The story follows a single day in the life of a tormented Irish-American family, the Tyrones, who are living with the ghosts of the past in their summer home in Connecticut. James Tyrone, the paterfamilias, is a blustering former stage star who traded in his early promise as a Shakespearean actor for the easy money of a popular melodrama, which he toured with endlessly, dragging his family along with him from hotel to hotel.

His elder son, Jamie, is a restless ne'er-do-well, embittered and estranged from the elder Tyrone. The younger son, Edmund, another wanderer, has literary ambitions but is hampered by a nagging cough that heralds the onset of tuberculosis. All three medicate their pain with copious doses of whiskey while Mary Tyrone, James' wife and the sons' mother, struggles with the twin demons of drug addiction and despair.

Family dysfunction, disease, and addiction are the everyday fodder for afternoon talk shows. But back in the early 20th Century, such subjects were disturbing and shocking. American theater was largely built on escapist entertainment, avoiding any sort of ugly human truths except perhaps in a romanticized melodrama. Then O'Neill came along, introducing brutal reality as the basis for his dramas. Like his idols, Strindberg and Ibsen, O'Neill set out to scour the theater of sugary sentimentality. He also sought a new vital theatricality, exploring all sorts of experimental forms in an onslaught of innovative plays. In the process, he became the poster boy for modern American playwrights, spinning his personal sorrows into theatrical gold. Those greats who followed him -- Williams, Miller, Albee -- have all walked the trail that O'Neill blazed.

Long Day's Journey is a powerful work -- poetic, poignant, often searing and painful, with haunting characterizations and careful psychological detail. But in my opinion, it is not great drama. In fact, it is melodrama. Despite the wealth of battling, deeply wounded characters, not much happens in this play, which is basically an overlong revelation of What's Really Going On with Mary Tyrone's Drug Addiction. It's designed as a slow striptease of information without subsequent action or character choice. No one changes here; they are revealed in a series of shocking revelations, long aria-like monologues, and verbal confrontations -- making Long Day's Journey a sort of spoken opera that ends, as many an opera does, in a mad scene. The frequent soul-barings, the desperate accusations, and plaintive reconciliations together with the uncomfortable three-hour length present major challenges to any production.

The New Theatre's version faces up to these challenges but doesn't scale them, opting for careful conservative staging that offers no point of view or theatrical voice. Barbara Lowery's direction looks good, and the dramatic beats are clear. Lowery also must be credited with finding a strong humorous streak in O'Neill's text, especially in the second half, a welcome counterpoint to all the gloom and doom.

Still, this Journey remains earthbound. Like many productions in South Florida, it appears to have originated as a programming choice, not an urgent need to say something important. Lowery's staging lacks any personality or risk, and many scenes seem underrehearsed, competently staged but not explored. There's little sense of ordinary life in this household, and in several scenes, characters make entrances with no clear intentions except to jump into extended verbal confrontations with whoever happens to be on-stage at the moment. This lack of specificity underscores the play's weaknesses and puts an even greater burden on the cast to carry the play on the backs of their characterizations.

In this, the company does yeoman work, with occasional dazzling flashes that suggest what could have been with more time and boldness. The casting seems peculiar -- none of these actors bears a resemblance to any other -- and there isn't much chemistry among them. Most do their strongest work, significantly, in their monologues. The redoubtable John Felix fares best as the miserly patriarch Tyrone, who in Felix's hands is pathetic, deplorable, and funny, at times all at once. Felix is a theatrical actor whose considerable rhetorical skills sometimes get in the way of emotional connection.

As Mary, Sally Levin returns to a role that brought her a Carbonell nomination in a New Theatre production of the play in the 1990s. Her stately manner and voice recall the dignified style of Katharine Hepburn, and her quiet descent into madness is certainly troubling. But Levin gives away her character's secret far too early in the story. The production would have been significantly improved had Levin and Lowery given Mary more layers of denial and artifice. As it is, the obviousness of her imbalance takes away whatever mystery that play has.

While Felix and Levin tend to sing their roles, Keith Cassidy as Jamie and Euriamis Losada as Edmund approach theirs in another style, with low-key naturalistic performances. The effects are uneven. Cassidy appears miscast at first, as his Jamie seems more of a sad-sack schlub than a restless prowler; but his second-act confession scene with his brother certainly has power. Losada's Edmund is honest and open, but his low-key approach sometimes is so laid-back, he drifts off the stage altogether, as in his extended monologue about his seafaring days.

The latter sequence is not served well by Gregory D. Sendler's sometimes intrusive, often annoying musical underscoring, a wan New Age pastiche of traditional Irish refrains. Michael McKeever's detailed set echoes the overall production -- it's well-crafted and says nothing. Credit Travis Neff with some delicate mood lighting (does anyone else light shows in South Florida?). Estela Vrancovich again comes through with a superior costume design, all whites and creams and occasional touches of red, like splotches of blood on a handkerchief.

Would that New Theatre had dared to reveal more blood in this production, which more resembles the old New Theatre than the post-Pulitzer one. The company and its thoroughbred string of playwrights are following in the footsteps of O'Neill's work with the Provincetown Players. This honors O'Neill's legacy and serves the public better than serving up excessively reverent productions of his work. On to O'Neill's heirs -- Cruz, Diament, and McKeever.


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