Who would think to deem Eugene O'Neill as one of the original forefathers of reality television? But perhaps we should - to add it to his long list of artistic achievements as one of the great playwrights of our time. Especially in the context of Long Day's Journey Into Night, one of O'Neill's brilliant constructions now playing at Arena Stage through May 6th, 2012.
Set in 1912, O'Neill's creation is thin on quantity of characters, but thick on complex and developed drama, each act unfolding slowly and powerfully like the layers of a potent onion. We are first introduced to James and Mary Tyrone in the midst of loving banter between husband and wife, demonstrating the certain affection between the two.
Mary, played brilliantly by Helen Carey, is a nervous and anxious woman in the later years of her life. The mother of two grown sons, Jaime and Edmund, she has just returned home from some time "away", but initially we are not privy to the reason for the absence. We know only that her husband, James (Peter Michael Goetz), a handsome and broad-chested successful businessman, is thrilled to have his wife back at home, grateful for her "return to health." Their exchanges are tender and playful, perhaps exaggerated to cover the elephant in the room.
From the beginning, Mary is uneasy and fidgety. She talks incessantly, and often out of context of the current conversation. She oddly and repeatedly inquires, in a very eerie manner, "Why are you staring at me? Is my hair coming down?" Each time, although always only in the presence of her husband and sons, she awkwardly and self-consciously raises her hands, riddled with rheumatism, to fix what is not in need of fixing. We know something is amiss. Mary is not entirely connected with reality. Perhaps a recovering alcoholic, or a schizophrenic? Perhaps she has suffered a mental breakdown? Subtle moments in the play, no doubt strategically placed by O'Neill, assist with gradually eliminating one cause after another.
It is not until well into the performance that we learn the true poison of Mary's oddities and by that point, Mary herself is well lost again to its horrifying grip. All we can do is sit, uncomfortably, and watch the resulting family dysfunction unfold. Minute-by-minute, act-by-act, both Mary and her family unravel. And it is in these moments that it becomes clear that O'Neill has created for us an original form of "reality playwriting." Wrapped around Mary's addiction, all of the fights, insults, physical altercations, repressed emotions and familial dirty laundry are laid at our feet. And we have a front row to witness all of it.
James' miserly behavior over the years, even as the patriarch of the family's wealth, is challenged and criticized - even blamed - as the cause for Mary's destructive lifestyle. Jaime, the Tyrone's eldest son, as played by Andy Bean, demonstrates a poor display of adulthood and while it is clear his parents love him sincerely, their disappointment in his lack of success is even more apparent. Jamie is blamed on more than one occasion for his younger brother's death, though the blaming appears to be due more for the need to placeblame rather than truly attribute a young child's death to Jaime. Nevertheless, the emotional impact is evident and has drastically shaped his outlook on life and his relations with his family.
The youngest of the family, Edmund, as played by Nathan Darrow, is babied by all, a clear aggravation to Jaime. Weakened by the onset of consumption, Edmund's condition only exasperates Mary's behaviors, creating yet another outlet for family turmoil. Edmund and his father have their own demons between them, and the number of fights between the two rivals those of James and Jaime, despite Edmund's role as the favored child. Perhaps due to the nature of his character, Edmund comes off sounding younger than his age and this can make the character difficult to invest in at times.
This is a family that loves, but more often endures. Faced with too many hardships, all rooted in Mary's addiction, their love is masked by the need to place blame, to find some cause for the unfair cards they've been dealt. But it is their love that keeps the merry go-round turning. As a family unit, giving up hope is not an option, despite the challenges it brings to each member of the family along the journey. We are left to question whether this family is truly a dramatic anomaly, or whether in actuality, we are given a window into an ordinary family. Initially, we may be quick to comment and judge on the seeming absurdity of O'Neill's family creation and their behaviors, just as we do with reality television stars. But when the doors are shut to our own homes, more often than not we are face-to-face with our own versions of absurdity, which we also may mask to ourselves and others - making O'Neill's production far more relatable than we originally envision.