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Tucson Weekly Family Flawed

ATC's 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' Has A Well-Balanced Cast, If Not Characters.

By Dave Irwin

NOVEMBER 2, 1998:  IF YOU THINK your family is dysfunctional, you should see Eugene O'Neill's. Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill's utterly bleak autobiographical drama, leaves you amazed he ever survived to become one of America's greatest playwrights. The Arizona Theatre Company's production emphasizes the timeless quality of this masterpiece with stark sets and outstanding acting.

Long Day's Journey was among the last plays O'Neill wrote. Presented to his wife as an anniversary gift in 1941, it was a purging catharsis of all his emotions and memories of his incredibly sick close kin. He gave instructions that the brutal and unflinching family portrait was not to be released until long after his death. Nonetheless, with permission from his widow, it was first produced in 1956, just three years after he died, earning him his fourth Pulitzer Prize at a time when the importance of the theatre in American literature was at its peak, with authors like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller roaming the landscape.

Set in a single summer's day and night in 1912, Long Day's Journey dissects the Tyrone family, whose first names are the same as O'Neill's real life parents and brothers, with the exception of reversing his name and his brother, Edmond, who died as an infant. The playwright skillfully peels successive layers of family secrets, slowly revealing each of its four members. O'Neill himself is Edmond, facing death from tuberculosis with its high mortality rate. His brother, Jamie, is a minor actor and a major alcoholic: cynical and floundering, and still sponging off dad at age 34.

Their father, James, remains a miser despite his significant wealth as a highly successful actor; this lands the family in a cheap summer house, but with no real home. Mary, the wife and mother, dreams of the career and happiness that love eluded her. She compensates with a hefty morphine addiction, as did O'Neill's own mother.

Director Marshall Mason is generally true to O'Neill's copious and specific instructions in the play, one major exception being the omission of the filled bookcases meant to illustrate the intellectual demeanor of the household. Set designer Ming Cho Lee gives us a stark, monochromatic set that intimates the large space of the house while focusing us on the claustrophobic front parlor where all of the action is set.

Costume designer Laura Crow dresses the Tyrones in baggy summer pastels that look more '50s than turn-of-the-century, but which enhance the sense of timelessness.

Actor Lawrence Pressman absolutely nailed his portrayal of patriarch James Tyrone. As intended, we see the actor underneath, always performing until emotion and events eventually overcome him. Pressman skillfully delineated a man generally content with his circumstances, but obsessively fearful of a future reversal of fortune.

Kim Bennett as Jamie also performed well, capturing his character's breezy, cynical qualities. He even pulls off a very physical slapstick scene at the end, when his character comes home drunk. Jason Kuykendall, as Edmond, had a brooding but not hopeless quality--appropriate as O'Neill's alter ego. He often simply sits through the other characters' long soliloquies as they reveal themselves. The one complaint against him is that aside from a few coughing fits, he seemed far too healthy-looking for a man about to go to a sanatorium. Shana Bousard as the maid, Cathleen, lent a bright-faced performance to a minor role.

The real standout was expressive actress Ruth Reid as Mary, the morphine mom. This role, one of the juiciest in all of acting, requires mercurial shifts and a convincing range, as the character vacillates between happy, loving mother and guilty, indulgent dope fiend, before finally settling into whacked-out addict. Throughout the play, Reid didn't miss a beat, relentlessly whipping the audience around on her emotional roller coaster.

All of the actors were totally convincing within O'Neill's finely defined and shifting cross-currents and rapidly permutating geometry of alliances. Mason's direction is particularly good in its precise timing of dialogue, especially as arguments erupt, effectively creating the illusion of real speech rather than learned lines.

Least satisfying was his choice for the final scene when Mary, now totally out of her mind on opiates, wanders downstairs where the three men are bonding with their own drug of choice, whiskey. Mason allows Reid to play this much too clearly and brightly, more mad Ophelia than far-gone addict.

The cast received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of opening night. On a curious note, however, a significant portion of the audience--as much as 10-percent--left during intermission. Perhaps the acrimonious brinkmanship and deeply flawed characters of the Tyrone family were simply too difficult to take. Arizona Theatre Company's production of Long Day's Journey is a great play done well, but it's not a pretty picture.

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