Play written in the ’40s covers timeless, universal themes
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Where was Alcoholics Anonymous when Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family needed it?
Alcoholism, addiction and the heartbreak that goes along with them are at the heart of Thunder River Theatre Company’s current production, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” now in its second weekend in Carbondale.
A cast of five, directed by Lon Winston, portrays a (long) day in the life of the Tyrones, a family riddled with alcoholism and drug addiction struggling to come to terms with the past. The youngest son Edmund, played by Nick Garay in his first TRTC performance, has consumption, or tuberculosis, which triggers a relapse into morphine addiction for matriarch Mary Tyrone, played by TRTC’s artistic director Valerie Haugen.
“She’s been home two weeks from rehab and this terrible day happens,” said Haugen during a conversation with Winston on the set earlier this week. “She falls off the wagon and starts shooting up, and the boys get trashed.”
Before you think “Rehab with Dr. Drew,” keep in mind that “Long Day’s Journey into Night” (LDJN) was written in the early 1940s and is set in 1912 Connecticut. “It’s autobiographical,” explained Winston. “[O’Neill] wrote it as a way of forgiving his family.”
And, as anyone who has lived with addiction knows, there’s a lot to forgive. In his online Director’s Diary about the process of putting together LDJN, Winston wrote, “the metaphors of alcoholism and drug abuse that define the relationships have amazing lessons in them.” The themes, he said last week while on the set, are still very much alive. “Seventy years later, how many people care about O’Neill and who he grew up with?” he queried. “Nobody. We put this on stage for how it speaks to our audiences today.”
The play debuted in February 1956, 15 years after its completion. “In a letter to his wife Carlotta, [O’Neill] told her not to publish the play until 25 years after [his death],” said Winston. But she published it within a year after he died, and it won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for drama. “When critics make a list of the three most significant plays of the 20th century, it’s ‘Death of a Salesman,’ ‘Streetcar [Named Desire’], and ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night,'” said Winston.
Carbondale audiences will recognize Haugen, a seasoned TRTC actor, and Owen O’Farrell, who plays patriarch James Tyrone. O’Farrell was last seen as Boris in TRTC’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
Jennica Deely, who has acted with TRTC and Aspen Community Theatre, plays Cathleen.
Newcomer David Pulliam, who recently moved to the valley from New York, takes on his first TRTC role as Jamie Tyrone.
The length of “Long Day’s Journey into Night” lives up to its name. The players are on stage for three hours, which Winston said is a sign of the times in which the play was written. “People were used to a longer theatre experience when Eugene O’Neill wrote this,” he said. “Now, we’re used to television with its half-hour and one-hour shows or the 90-minute movie experience.”
But, said Winston, who has divided the play into three acts with two intermissions, the length of TRTC’s production doesn’t seem to be distracting. “We’ve had people tell us it goes by like that,” he added with a snap of his fingers. The characters argue poetry, philosophy and books, added Haugen, and the lines overlap. “We really drive the play,” she said.
In fact, the ultimate test came during the preview performance last week for Roaring Fork High School students. “They were riveted,” said Winston, recalling a conversation with one of the students after the play. “Those kids saw what they are dealing with.”
LDJN has also been adapted for film over the decades, including a 1962 version, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Sir Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr. and Katherine Hepburn. But Winston prefers the stage. There’s an aliveness and immediacy to theatre that can’t be captured on film, he explained. “Watching an actor live through a moment is dangerous and risky,” he said. “You can’t yell ‘cut!’ and start over again.”
And it’s risky for the audience, too, particularly when the play is performed in the round as it is for the next two weekends at TRTC. The audience sits around the stage in full view of the players and each other. The seating brings the audience into the play.
Winston demonstrated the effect by sitting in a seat on the opposite side of the theatre from an observer. With the stage lights up, both audience members could clearly see each other – and their reactions – across the stage. “At the movies, you buy some popcorn and then you watch, you eat, you look,” he added. With theatre-in-the-round, there’s a slight feeling of exposure. “We become reflections of each other,” he said.
Both Winston and Haugen are passionate about this production. It’s meaty; the dialogue is salted with poetry and Shakespeare, and it’s a hotbed of emotions. The biggest challenge has been to help the actors live the lives of such painful people, said Winston, and to explore their characters honestly. “It’s a challenge to do a play that’s long and dark and powerful,” he added. “But I love that. Why else do it?”
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” continues with performances at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale, March 1-3 and 7-9. Curtain at 7:30 p.m. except for March 3 Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets and information are available at http://www.thunderrivertheatre.com.
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