Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
(Michael Doonan and Harris Yulin in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” at the Court Theatre. Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Eugene O’Neill’s epic LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT can be found on a lot of theater company bucket lists – unsurprisingly, as what actor/director doesn’t want to rise to its challenge? When a theater decides to tackle a piece from the American canon, I’m compelled to ask, “Why you?” and “Why now?”
David Auburn (a celebrated playwright, but in this case the play’s director) has answered those questions. I can’t help but think that O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical, four-act piece will be painfully relevant until we, as a society, change the way we talk about mental illness and addiction. If only you could will yourself to be well, if only you could be strong, if only we were enough – this is a strong undercurrent of Auburn’s production. The burden weighs on Mary Tyrone, the matriarch, as she battles a morphine addiction.
Mary Beth Fisher’s detailed interpretation of Mary under Auburn’s sharp direction is reason enough for this company to do this play now. The men spend much of the play willing Mary to show up for her life – their life – but Fisher’s Mary is more alive when she’s medicated. Sober, that life is entrenched in deep, lonely regret. Given the limited resources of an unhappily married woman in 1912, the drug becomes an outlet, her forged path to freedom. Fisher’s powerhouse performance is one for the books – brave, complex, and extremely moving.
And what makes the morphine so different from the alcohol that is so eagerly consumed by the rest of the Tyrones? Each of them is dependent on ignorance and vice, willing to self-medicate instead of considering change or sacrifice. “The past is the present. It’s the future, too,” as Mary says. Their complacency is their downfall.
This stubbornness is most present in the relationship between James (Harris Yulin) and Jamie (Dan Waller). “You can’t change the leopard’s spots.” Yulin and Waller are most engaged in this relationship, pressing each other’s buttons with tenacity. Their long history of mutual disapproval and blame is always present, and the stakes are high. Between each of the Tyrone’s, O’Neill has crafted an intense dynamic, and under Auburn’s direction, relationships are rich and fraught with manipulation and denial and love. The scenes between Edmund (Michael Doolan) and Mary are some of the most textured – Edmund, who is ill, struggles to maintain hope for Mary’s health, and she for his. While Edmund tries to resist seeing Mary as a disaster waiting to happen, she is unable to do the same for him.
The design, overall, is excellent – particularly the set by Jack Magaw, which allows us to watch as characters overhear conversations that aren’t meant for them. In Melissa Torchia’s costumes, we literally watch these people unravel.
The only hurdle that Auburn doesn’t quite clear is in the pacing of the piece, though he does, smartly, lean into its levity and humor, particularly in Alanna Rogers’ Kathleen. The emotional explosions early in the play are authentic and powerful, but the tension is diffused too often to keep this long play taught all the way through.
But Auburn’s retelling is well worth seeing. This is an important production of an important work and I highly recommend it.
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