Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Runs in the Family: Soulpepper's production of Long Day's Journey Into Night

Gregory Prest, Nancy Palk, Joseph Ziegler & Evan Buliung. Photo: Michael Cooper

Until last week, I had neither seen nor read Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. In fact, going in I knew only four things about it: It is very autobiographical. O'Neill is the basis for the consumptive character, Edmond. He wrote it in 1942 and then expressly forbid it to be published until 25 years after his death (a wish that was, thankfully, broken by his wife – it was first published and performed in 1956, only three years after his death). And it is considered one of the greatest plays ever written in the English language. After seeing Toronto-based Soulpepper Theatre Company's production (onstage February 23rd to March 31st), I understand why.

In 1912, an Irish-American family spend the day together hurling accusations and recriminations at each other as the matriarch, Mary Tyrone (Nancy Palk), slowly spirals back into a morphine-influenced psychosis. The patriarch, James Tyrone (Joseph Ziegler), is a miserly, alcoholic, formerly popular stage actor who regrets the fact he reached for and managed to grab the brass ring of success, a brass ring that became a false god. The eldest son, Jamie (Evan Buliung), follows his father onto the stage where he too achieves a measure of success on Broadway. His self-loathing, which he steeps in a steady supply of booze and whores, comes from the knowledge that whatever success he had was from riding his father's coat tails. The youngest son, Edmund (Gregory Prest), tries and fails to escape it all. He has the soul of a poet and travelled the world in an attempt to find meaning in his existence. For his efforts, he manages to contract tuberculosis and has returned to his parent's home, cap in hand, looking for help to regain his health.

Author Umberto Eco once wrote about his best-selling novel, The Name of the Rose, that the first 100 pages or so were to be considered penance for the reader. Since the first 100 pages of that book were a hard-to-navigate exploration of the life and world of a medieval abbey – including our narrator spending an entire chapter describing the carvings on an ornate door – it was penance indeed. Once you got past those first 100 pages, though, you were “permitted” to enjoy the rest of the book, which was an elaborate murder mystery. There's nothing like that in O'Neill's play, but if you can get through the harrowing first two of the play's four acts, you do get to Acts 3 and 4 where there are moments of not only humour, but also deep humanity where we come to understand where all the pain, hatred and loathing in the first half came from.

O'Neill created such a layered and delicate piece of writing that I can see how, unless the performers and directors are careful with this material, it could go terribly wrong. The actors, director (Diane Leblanc), set/costume designer (Peter Harrwell) and lighting designer (Steven Hawkins) have all come together to honour this great work to create a production that perhaps is not a masterpiece, but is certainly supremely memorable. Leblanc has been here before. She directed the near-legendary Stratford Festival production in the mid-1990s (a film version, based on her production, was shot a year later by David Wellington) which starred William Hutt, Martha Henry, Tom McCamus, Peter Donaldson and Martha Burns. I cannot say if lightning has struck twice, because I have nothing to measure it against, but coming to this material as fresh as a newborn, all I can say is that I was transfixed and have not stopped thinking about it since I saw it five days ago. Though others who have seen other versions may disagree with my assessment (be it the Stratford version; innumerable Broadway revivals; or the famous 1962 film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards Jr., and Bradford Dillman), I only have this one to base my reaction on. This is now my baseline, and it will probably be hard to beat.

Gregory Prest, Nancy Palk, and Joseph Ziegler. Photo: Michael Cooper

From the set to the lighting to the performances all work in concert. Palk dominates the first half, and her performance  as she moves from someone who seems fragile, but sane, to someone clearly hanging on by her finger nails  is done with a beautiful subtlety. One of my favourite moments that so ably illustrates her movement back into madness was her laugh. Earlier, she was focused and present and when she laughed it was genuine. Then, later in the day, as she talks to Edmund, she begins to laugh and she just can't stop. It is truly unnerving and very sad because we know, and Edmond knows, she's slipping back into the, well, fog. (Fog is a central metaphor in the work, whether imagined or real. It sometimes represents Mary’s chronic morphine addiction, but it is also a real fogged-in landscape where other characters, such as Edmund, feel safe.) She is dressed in a white ankle-length dress that, especially when she stands downstage right, the lighting gives a spectral quality to. Her constant obsession with her hair and her glasses, the first clues that her hold on reality is starting to slip, is also handled gracefully.

At first, Evan Builiung comes across as too modern as Jamie to be from 1912, but as he hits the rhythms of self-loathing his performance deepens. When he says to Edmund at one point, “I love you more than I hate you,” you know that he mostly believes what he's saying. Gregory Prest as Edmund, O'Neill's stand-in, is superb. As the consumptive who feels trapped by his family's and his own failures, he is achingly believable. His slump-shoulder, pasty-face appearance is the perfect physical embodiment of his character.

In a small part as the maid, Cathleen, Krystin Pellerin (The Republic of Doyle) does remarkable work in a role whose whole purpose is to act as a sounding board to Mary as she talks about her past. She doesn't have much to do, but as with Prest, she uses her body language to convey her character. As Palk sits ramrod straight, Pellerin sits slumped in her chair, with one foot clumsily thrust forward and in a unmannered fashion slurps at her drink. Her choices make her character's background – decidedly working class Irish – crystal clear.

Actor Joseph Ziegler
But it is Joseph Ziegler, as the regret-filled James, who puts on a masterclass. As I said, in the first half, Palk is the dominant character, but in the second, it is Ziegler. In the long first half of Act 3, it's just James and Edmund playing cards, drinking and talking. As James and Edmund talk, we finally understand James' miserly ways, exposing his fears and regrets. In the Artist's Notes included in the playbill, Ziegler announced that in his long career this was his first visit to O'Neill's world. But from his choices and his approach to this bombastic man with a deeply flawed love for his family you would think he's made a career out of acting in O'Neill's work. (This would be a much better choice than James’ real-life equivalent, James O’Neill, picked when he simultaneously achieved financial stability and artistic ruin by playing the lead 6000 times as the Count in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo.) Though Prest is fine during this sequence, you can see the slight weaknesses of a younger actor next to a veteran who, in his long career, has probably lived through some of the regrets that surround James. As the sequence went along, a sort of tunnel vision overtook me, gradually pulling me in so much that I felt like a silent participant sitting at the table with them as they came to terms with each other.

If there is a flaw in this production it is ironically in the script (yeah, I know, blasphemy to comment on the script that is considered a masterpiece). In the second half, Mary does not appear until the very end, supposedly upstairs in a morphine-induced stupor, but her presence is always felt by the characters and the audience. The three men come together at the end for moments of understanding that make their loathing and, yes, their love completely real. The set makes us consistently aware of Mary's invisible presence. Above the centre front of the stage, dangling in mid air, is a bay window, shutters closed, which represented the window at the front of the house. In the second half, a light was switched on in the window, and sound effects of her movements tell us that's where Mary is. The dialogue amongst the men, sound effects of her movements, coupled with this prop window and light, tells us everything we need to know about both her state of mind and what will happen to her. Then at the end of Act 4, she comes out, wearing the veil from her wedding dress and carrying the dress itself. As the three men sit at a table and watch her in horror, she talks inexorably about the past, like a boat against the current beating unceasingly into it, probably never to return again to anything representing reality. And yet, it seemed somewhat unnecessary. What was unsaid earlier in the last two Acts told us much of what we need to know, so her return was a bit redundant. Plus, it must be hard for a performer, who was so prominent and central in the first half of three-hour play, to bring her game back up after more than an hour off stage. Palk does what she can, but as she moves around the stage it's like watching a baseball pitcher who was working on a no-hitter until the rain came, causing a long delay. When the pitcher comes back out, he no longer has that edge. Same with Palk. She's fine, but her choices make her a little more like Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire than Mary Tyrone.

As we were leaving, my friend and I talked about the production – a conversation that enthusiastically continued the next morning with anybody who would listen to us. He made a very prescient comment about what O'Neill had achieved. He said that when you walk out of a great musical, you should be able to hum the most memorable tunes. He continued that in Long Day's Journey Into Night, there were no songs to hum, but there sure was memorable dialogue that sticks with you and you end up "humming" it for days after, lines such as “I can't help but like you in spite of everything;” or as James says to Jamie “You're fine to sneer with the map of it [Ireland] on your face,” to which Jamie responds, “Not after I wash my face;” or as Jamie says to the land-buying obsessed James, “If Edmund was a lousy acre of land, the sky would be the limit.”

My one regret of now finally seeing a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night is that I will never again have that moment of discovery; I will never again see the play for the first time. Soulpepper's production was my first encounter with this work and it will always hold great meaning for me no matter what versions I see in the future.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this great play at a Wed matinee. All of the actors were convincing, except for Ziegler. I do not know why, but he just did not seem to fit the role of the father. He appeared too soft. Maybe it was Wed in the afternoon, who knows?

    As for the release of the play, it was his THIRD wife's choice. Maybe she didn't care enough for his feelings.