Sunday, August 15, 2010

Portland theater: Welcome back, "Long Day's Journey"

Robyn Nevin and William Hurt in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"
By Barry Johnson

Let's just get this out of the way first. The magnificent "Long Day's Journey Into Night" that the Sydney Theater Company and Artists Repertory Theatre have brought to the Newmark Theater comprises something around 3-hours 45-minutes of stage time.

Shakespeare at his longest and most serious can clock in at about the same running time, but those plays have apparitions, duels to the death, plays within plays, and lots of characters. "Long Day's Journey Into Night" has five characters (mostly four) and all they do is talk and drink.

It's a physical feat to sit through it, and this morning my back, shoulders, neck and backside all provide a record of the evening. I can't even imagine the physical stress on the actors. Sometimes three or four of them are on the stage at once, and there are only two chairs.  Even though I know director Andrew Upton has blocked out every last movement they make, I still imagine them glancing hungrily at those chairs, doing a quick calculation to determine whether, if necessity arises, they can get to one of them first. 

But let's not get carried away. It's a great play, sheer genius, a great mountain of a play. And this production with its bare, expressionist setting -- two giant slanting "concrete" beams dominate the set, which is framed by a great square with thick, hot-red piping -- explores all of its surfaces, slipping on its scree, gazing over into its deadly crevasses, rising toward its summit. It's too great to characterize in a word or two, too complex, too deeply invested.

All this would go without saying except that we so rarely encounter either "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or even Eugene O'Neill anymore.  It's wonderful to have them both restored to us in this way.

Down to business: O'Neill finished the play in 1942 and had it sealed in the Random House documents vault with the instruction that it couldn't be produced until 25 years after his death. (It finally was published three years after his death in 1953 and won the Pulitzer in 1957, but that's another story.) I totally understand why -- he needed some distance from those events and from what we might think of him and his family after watching them tangle for four hours.

Twenty-five years in the grave might be distance enough, but I might have suggested 50, if he'd asked. This play is that revealing -- the alcoholism, the drug addiction, the wounds inflicted and re-opened, the eternal cycle of recrimination and reconciliation and recrimination again. It's embarrassing for everyone, including the audience, because we recognize the same self-pity and self-aggrandizement in ourselves as O'Neill creates on stage.

I found myself seated next to Artist Repertory Theatre's artistic director Allen Nause for the production. Before it began, I noted that he must have seen it several times and was still coming back again. That must mean something? I thought I was making small talk until he said, "You mean, I haven't slit my wrists yet?" O brother.

What makes "Long Day's Journey" so awful, so depressing? It's not the family narrative itself that the characters keep kicking around. That one's fairly simple. The actor James Tyrone (William Hurt) meets and marries a young girl in Midwest, Mary (Robyn Nevin), and they spend 36 years together, during which time they have three children, James Jr. (Todd Van Voris), Edmund (Luke Mullins) and Eugene (who dies in childbirth). James is on the road constantly, mostly flogging a successful show that makes him rich,  and Mary goes with him, with her children in tow. Summers they spend in a cottage by the shore, which is where the play is set, foghorn booming and birds squawking.

We establish that they all have serious problems with booze, except Mary, who has a serious problem with morphine. James Jr. has followed his successful father into the acting business, unsuccessfully. And Edmund, ten years younger than his brother, has shipped out for exotic ports of call, though he's returned because of illness. He also fancies himself a bit of writer, and quotes Baudelaire among other "modern" poets of despair.

Not so bad, you might say, except that it is.  We instantly understand the unhappiness, the dreams unfulfilled. Mary didn't want the traveling life of an actor's wife. She wanted a "home." James wanted the life of a true artist. James Jr. wanted almost anything but what he got. Edmund is finding himself, his course, and can't imagine that it involves anything connected to this family of his. And so the game begins, the blame game and then the "you didn't understand me, my motives were pure" game, round and round. Except that it isn't an "argument," a matter of evidence collected, tested and marshaled. The stakes are too high for a cognitive exercise, too existential, and so it becomes political, a matter of power, internal family power, and everyone knows everyone else's weaknesses and strategies, the right buttons to push. And so it becomes personal and passionate.

The Tyrones become monsters. We become monsters.

And we don't believe what any of them say, their stories or their explanations. They chew on the "family story" like wolves on a carcass, growling and pleading, collapsing and asking for quarter at one moment and then back on the attack the next.  It's thrilling, the self-deception.  The truest line? For me it comes from James and it's directed at Mary: "For god's sake I wish you had the strength to keep on." They can be truthful about what they want from each other, I suppose -- a home, approval, love, security, respect -- they just don't understand their own responsibility for what they want, though that sounds therapeutic somehow, and these guys have slipped past the family therapy stage.

I loved the acting in this production. At first, I worried that William Hurt was going to mumble inaudibly through the entire show, but I quickly grew accustomed to his swift line readings, which contain his characteristic emphasis, his spit of a word or two, before tumbling on again. I like his deliberateness on stage, the freight his touch carries when he lays hands on the other characters, the way he fights for James, the character James, to justify him and locate his inner dignity.

I wish I'd spent the past 30 years watching the great Robyn Nevin in such plays as "Women of Troy," "Master Class," "Macbeth," and "The Sea Gull" in Sydney.  She's a wonder, modulating body and voice in a flutter that seems so real and is so difficult to build on stage. Her ability to disappear into the fog of morphine or reverie and then snap out of it for a bitter rejoinder astonishes both as a technical accomplishment and an intellectual one.

Luke Mullins plays the weakest character, Edmund, who is both the youngest and wracked with a tubercular cough, and he takes that vulnerability and wraps it elastically around the other characters, deft as a judo master.  Edmund has some spine, too, and, like his mother, can erupt in his own rants of desire and disappointment, which Mullins sharpens to a fine edge.

By this time we understand that Todd Van Voris, the one Portlander in the cast, is a brilliant actor, right? But maybe not this brilliant, because we haven't seen him in anything quite like "Long Day's Journey"?  He possesses a booming, clear voice, but he knows to keep it under wraps and let it fill with the deep emotional resources at his command, a cello not a foghorn. But I also love his physicality as an actor, from the expressive face to the way he cuts swathes of space with his big body.  There's a touch of slapstick here at times and slapstick's darker side, pathos.

Emily Russell plays the maid Cathleen, who's mainly there for a bit of comic relief. Because of her relatively short time on stage, she might be an afterthought, but, no, Russell suggests the fullness of a real character and insinuates herself into the music on the stage seamlessly.

Our culture is not used to O'Neill, to ruthless examinations of this intensity and depth and length. I think of the revelations, the psychology of the play, as "contemporary" somehow,  immediate and true.  No act of self-exposure in the most extreme performance art can be any more complete than "Long Day's Journey." As audiences, though, we aren't used to that long in the chair, in the theater, in our heads.  It's grueling, even though there really are some lighter moments, at least lighter to us (whether O'Neill intended them that way or not).  I wish I had prepared better -- a couple of months of running and yoga, for example, a steady diet of greens and Strindberg. But I won't be forgetting this night at the Newmark anytime soon. And maybe never.

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