Outside of literary and dramatic circles, the name Eugene O’Neill is not often heard in conversation these days.
The pioneering American playwright and Nobel laureate, who died in 1953, is still renowned as one of the great influencing voices of modern theater, of course. His plays continue to be rightfully hailed as classics, and his socialist leanings helped to establish a liberal undercurrent in American theater which continues to flow to this day.
Even so, his plays were written well over half a century ago, and many modern theater-goers might well question whether they bear any real relevance to the culture of today.
Onstage now at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (9390 N Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills), the imported Bristol Old Vic production of his posthumously-published, Pulitzer-winning masterpiece “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” answers that question with a resounding “yes.”
Rife with barely-fictionalized autobiography, the play is set over the course of a single day in the seaside summer home of James Tyrone and his family. Tyrone is a famous actor whose fear of poverty makes him a miser despite his financial success; his wife, Mary, abandoned her aspirations as a pianist to marry a “matinee idol”; their eldest son, Jamie, is a ne’er-do-well who has failed at becoming an actor in his own right; and their youngest son, Edmund, is a sickly intellectual with dreams of becoming a poet. When the play opens, all seems well and cheerful between this obviously loving quartet, despite some occasional grousing. As the action proceeds, however, it becomes clear that each of them harbors deep regrets about their own lives and deep resentments against each other – resulting in painful and conflicted interactions, full of mixed messages and crossed signals, fueled by shame and guilt, and exacerbated by the addictions that each embrace to dull their own despair.
At first glance it may appear that this bleak snapshot of one family’s daily descent into a shared hell has little to do with the world today. After all, what can a play set in 1912 have to say about family dynamics and the psychology of addiction that our modern understanding has not made irrelevant?
In the hands of director Sir Richard Eyre and his cast of world-class performers, plenty.
This imported British production puts its finger right on the pulse of O’Neill’s complex language, mining it to reveal its underlying, oft-repeated themes in scenes that could easily be taking place in countless households throughout America today. It’s a chilling reminder of how little difference a hundred years can make.
First, there is the “elephant in the room” which is Mary’s addiction to morphine; in a country currently in the grip of a record epidemic in opioid dependence, it’s hard not to hear the reverberations when she and the others refer to the eagerness of doctors to prescribe drugs as an easy fix – or to think of the millions of men and women who wander like ghosts, as she does, behind the closed doors of their modern-day homes. Likewise, it’s hard to escape the irony of the three Tyrone men drowning their feelings in an endless flow of alcohol even as they bemoan the matriarch’s lack of “will power” against her own self-destruction.
Then there are the political parallels – Tyrone’s old-fashioned self-made-man rhetoric about the values of the past play against his sons’ anti-capitalist criticisms and introspective artistic inclinations like scenes between a Trump-supporting elder and his liberal progressive offspring at any dinner table in America today. In his fear-driven conservatism, the old man skimps on essential care for his own family in favor of financial speculation; what better allegory could be conceived for the political gap which divides our society in 2018?
There are other things. In Mary’s haunted memories we can read the frustration of a woman denied agency by a society which treats her sex as mere decorative possessions; in the alcoholic cynicism of Jamie and the impotent rebellion of Edmund we can see the response of a younger generation capable of seeing the failures of a system rooted in the past yet incapable of effecting change; and in the passive-aggressive wrangling of this fractured family unit, it’s possible to see the reflection of an entire culture caught in a codependent loop of recrimination and self-loathing.
The technical merits of this production, which garnered raves in its home country before being shipped to the Wallis stage, are all as would be expected – from the glass-house vortex of Rob Howell’s set to the ever-dimming glow of Peter Mumford’s delicate lighting – and will be self-evident enough to audiences not to warrant elaboration here.
As for the show’s remarkable cast, it’s impossible not to spend a few words on them. The magnificent Jeremy Irons, in a role he seems born to play, makes of Tyrone a fading autocrat; simultaneously asserting and abdicating authority just as he professes and withholds his love, he is the archetypal distant father figure – yet he never once seems anything other than human.
Every bit his equal is the exquisite Lesley Manville. Her Mary evokes the bright charm of a coquettish schoolgirl worn increasingly thin by desperation bubbling within – an apt persona for someone who has clung too long to the image of her past while denying the disappointment and loneliness of the decades gone by. She is a woman who plays the role of doting wife and loving mother, yet has lost the feeling required for those roles, and she is as heartbreaking as she is riveting to watch.
The two sons more than hold their own against their powerhouse co-stars. Rory Keenan’s Jamie is a charismatic rake, whose intelligence shines through even in his most boorish moments. As Edmund, Matthew Beard sometimes lacks connection to the flights of poetic fancy into which his character sometimes goes, but he more than makes up for it in the authenticity with which he bestows this young man’s conflicted feelings for his family.
This group of actors, through a meticulous specificity of language and intent, brings O’Neill’s magnum opus to life in a way that makes it feel newly-minted. It’s because they (and their insightful director) have taken pains to find the truth engraved deeply into these characters that this “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” emerges just as its author surely intended – as a portrait of the damage that can be inflicted by human beings on themselves and each other, even where there is love.
As anyone lucky enough to sit in the audience during the show’s brief run at the Wallis will discover, it’s something that is just as relevant today as it ever was – and, like it or not, ever will be.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” runs through July 1 in the Bram Goldsmith Theatre at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets and more info available at thewallis.org.