“I’m sorry I remembered out loud,” exclaims an exasperated, exhausted and somewhat contrite Mary Cavan Tyrone, after one of her increasingly dissolute attempts to have her painful memories and excruciating present understood—or perhaps merely acknowledged. As if that would help.
Pitch-perfectly portrayed by Helen Carey, in the Guthrie Theater’s first production of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mary is the long-suffering—and morphine-addicted—matriarch in a family of alcoholic men. Bird-like beneath her meticulously coiffed grey hair, Mary quickly slips from recovery into the fog of addiction in the course of the three-hour production. Her hands are cramped into rheumatic claws with which she beats through the thickets of age and memory, recrimination and remorse…stopping occasionally to pat her head, check her hair and seek assurances from her family that she still has her looks.
Mary’s family includes her belligerent yet caring husband, James Tyrone (Peter Michael Goetz, restrained and sympathetic) — an actor with whom she fell in love shortly after graduating from convent school. Her older son, Jamie (John Catron, a tornadic force), is a wastrel attempting, somewhat, to follow in his father’s thespian footsteps. Edmund is the youngest (John Skelley, lithe, winsome and perhaps the production’s most tragic figure), conceived after the death of Eugene (for which Mary blames everyone, including herself), and recently diagnosed with consumption.
The play occurs on one fog-dense August day in 1912 at the Tyrones’ summer home, during which alcohol and morphine, anger and fear fuel each family member’s disappointments and regrets. The family closely mirrors O’Neill’s own. So much so that, after finishing Long Day’s Journey in 1941, O’Neill stipulated the play couldn’t be performed until 25 years after his death (which occurred in 1953).
In our 21st-century culture of reality programming, social media self-disclosure and gotcha press, where baring one’s body, soul and secrets has become commonplace, one might ask: What’s the big deal? Well, believe it or not, secrets were just that in O’Neill’s day: Private occurrences, behaviors and information that weren’t talked about within the family, much less aired in public. Repression ruled.
But in O’Neill’s play, talk they do. Intercutting their shame and blame with equal parts love, compassion and a sense of helplessness. Which is, in part, why the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm gained access to the play and first produced it in 1958—and O’Neill was posthumously awarded his fourth Pulitzer Prize. Which is why Mary’s half-convincing apology, “I’m sorry I remembered out loud,” so cuts to the quick.
As directed by Joe Dowling, this production of O’Neill’s family tragedy doesn’t shy away from emotional levity. There is wit, laughter and the occasional cutting remark (at once painful and humorous); the maid Cathleen (Laoisa Sexton, over-Irishing her Irish) offers a wry perspective on the proceedings. But these lighter bits sit alongside pain that constantly drips, IV-like, into the family dynamic. There’s no escape for the Tyrone family, but it’s an unforgettable night of theater for the rest of us.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, written by Eugene O’Neill and directed Joe Dowling, is on the Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis from January 12 through February 23.
Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities arts journalist and dance critic.
Viewfinder posts are your opportunity to “show & tell” about the everyday arts happenings, interesting sights and sounds made or as seen by Minnesota artists, because art is where you find it. Submit your own informal, first-person responses to the art around you to editor(at)mnartists.org, and we may well publish your piece here on the blog. (Guidelines: 300 words or less, not about your own event/work, and please include an image, media, video, or audio file, and one sentence about yourself.)