Brian Jacobson

APT saves biggest emotional wallop for last

By - Aug 28th, 2009 04:27 pm


Jim DeVita and Darragh Kennan in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2009. (Photo by Zane Williams)

Jim DeVita and Darragh Kennan in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2009. (Photo by Zane Williams)

Show: Long Day’s Journey into Night
Author: Eugene O’Neill
Produced by: American Players Theatre
Director: John Langs
Runs: 8/27 through 10/18
Length: approx. 180 minutes, with two intermissions*

There is something completely appropriate about staging O’Neill’s seminal play at an intimate theater deep in the woods. The script itself and this version in particular focus on the internal,  and the new Touchstone Theater stage is designed so that the actors and audience are nearly inseparable. It’s like going home for the holidays and watching the arguments from an armchair. So as we descend into fall and family gatherings loom ever closer, it’s time to re-examine this American classic.

In this story, the Tyrone family gathers at the family homestead on the eve of the youngest adult son, Edmond, being diagnosed with consumption. Already, Mother Mary (Sarah Day) is not well. Her gnarled fingers are revealed as rheumatism and later we learn that she has turned to morphine for the pain. Even later, it’s implied she’s turned to the drug to stay in a dreamy state and out of the sanitarium again.

The father (Kenneth Albers) and two sons (Jim DeVita and Darragh Kennan) grapple with each other’s flaws as they orbit the issue of their deteriorating wife and mother. The play is largely autobiographical for O’Neill, and so here the Tyrones are a paternal family of stage actors and a writer. Using this device, the participants are able bring in references from Shakespeare and other playwrights to bear. Also, a lot of whiskey is consumed.

Darragh Kennan, Sarah Day, Jim DeVita and Kenneth Albers in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2009. (Photo by Zane Williams)

Darragh Kennan, Sarah Day, Jim DeVita and Kenneth Albers in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2009. (Photo by Zane Williams)

There is an overcurrent of repression and desperate acting out that electrifies Long Day’s Journey, and makes it both relevant and obsolete to American audiences today. It’s a period piece within a period piece (written in 1956, but set in 1912) and can’t help but play as such, but the recognition of our own American lives and weaknesses runs in a generational cycle that’s tragically evergreen.

O’Neill’s family demons (alcoholism, drugs, family ideals, money) pervade the themes of today’s cinematic and televised dramas because they still ring true. However, modern life, with its distractions, might have stretched out this intense 24-hour setting into a week of bickering that may or may not achieve true resolution. The play becomes dated when we recognize that hectic schedules and our media-saturated daily lives may be keeping us from these most unpleasant, but ultimately necessary conversations with family. We are doped up by entertainment so we don’t have to deal with each other, calling into question whether O’Neill’s drama could ever happen to us. But for local audiences on opening night, there were many shows of recognition as they recognized bits of the story from their own histories.

This current production doesn’t break any new ground or try anything drastic to update or add value to the staging – and rightfully so. An ambient foghorn effect and lighting designer Jason Fassl’s dimmer switch-to-straight-down spotlight method is used whenever Mary starts to ramble and stare out into the audience. This is about the breadth of innovation of the source material, which needs little effects or furniture. The lighting effect serves to make Mary’s train of thought seem like a monologue happening solely inside her head, as the sons and father often remain frozen, waiting for her to finish.

The resident acting company does an admirable job of handling a deep well of material. I would have traded off the roaring rage typically used on a larger auditorium stage for seething anger instead; there’s something stronger and more complex to be found by emoting methods for a crowd of 200 than 2,000, as was used here.

Almost every actor inhabits a character as if they were living it: DeVita has limited stage time, but makes the most of it as the eldest son who has lost his way. Albers has the presence and deep timbre to play a stage-actor father well. Day channels a bit of Katherine Hepburn (more Bringing Up Baby Hepburn than her 1962 film portrayal in Long Day’s Journey) and is scary-believable as a woman coming unhinged. Kennan’s version of Edmond was plausible, even more so in the fourth act as a drunk. I wasn’t convinced he was playing the role immersively — at times he would be sick or drunk when the script called for it, and then be normal and attentive the next moment.

It’s totally understandable why a summer theater group with a storied cast would undertake such a challenging and powerhouse play. While each cast member has been busy in other APT productions this summer, they have a chance here to deliver volumes of great exchanges and monologues in under four hours. If anything, I wish it could have been longer, so as to fully realize certain moments that get barrel-rolled through. O’Neill’s tale is uncomfortable and moving, and it’s fortunate that APT has lit walkways though the woods to guide dazed audiences back to their vehicles.

*A footnote: My suggestion is to attend a matinee or earlier show if you’re coming from a distance. Better yet, take advantage of a local inn or  bed and breakfast. Don’t do like I did: detours on the route made the trip almost three hours, and then the long play let out at 11 p.m. It’s a long night’s journey into Milwaukee at that point.

American Players Theatre’s website has extensive details on its plays, along with area dining and lodging options. Tickets and other information can also be had by calling (608) 588-2361.

You can find more stage highlights and listings at


Categories: Theater, VITAL

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