Monday, 3 May 1999

Long Day's Journey into Night, 3 May 1999

by Eugene O'Neill
Melbourne Theatre Company with Bell Shakespeare and QTC until May 29, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Families may be designed to test our patience but the family in Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey Into Night, would drive a saint to drink.

In fact, they are all four - mother, father, and two sons - driven to drink or drugs. Even in middle-class America during 1912, substance abuse was rife. This play is all the more poignant being derived directly from O'Neill's own family.

Given its gut-wrenching purge of his Irish-American past, it is no surprise that O'Neill requested it only be published twenty-five years after his death and never be performed. It had its first production in 1956, just three years after his death, thanks to the questionable motives of his third wife. Would he writhe in pain knowing his skeletons are out?

The play is an exceptional piece of realism completed in 1945. It tears away any guise of decorum or fragment of hope. The Tyrones are phantoms in a fog of booze, dope and a history of deception, fear and shattered hope.

They are the epitome of that twin-headed Irish-Catholic monster: guilt and blame. In a moment, they flip from love to loathing. They abuse then appease, gloat then soothe. O'Neill balances superbly the grotesque and the realistic.

The Tyrones spend August in their wretched, hollow summerhouse. James (John Bell) is that rare creature, a financially successful actor, stingy as Scrooge and a roaring drunk. His wife, Mary, (Robyn Nevin) is a tragic figure addicted to morphine since the painful birth of her younger son, Edmund. Her decline into morphine haze is the pivot of this single, tortuous day into night.

The sons are no happier. Jamie (Sandy Winton) is a mean-mouthed, womanising, drunken failed actor. Edmund, (Benjamin Winspear), a whining young literary hopeful who represents O'Neill, is diagnosed with consumption. It is the extraordinary day in a family's life which makes great drama.

Nevin is compelling as the desperately lonely Mary. Her relentless decline culminates in the final act with her touching retreat into her youth. Bell, as Tyrone, is overbearing yet charming, the key to the character. Winspear and Winton seem uncomfortable and neither penetrate the complexity of the text.

Director, Michael Donald Edwards, confines our vision within Michael Scott-Mitchell's jagged set design and muted lighting by David Walters. Edwards has kept up a cracking pace to shorten the play to three hours.

By Kate Herbert

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