If there ever was a mid-winter play, it is Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Running only this weekend at the Rhinebeck Center for Performing Arts, it is a play that demands bravura acting. The play depicts an upper middle-class family in decline. A patriarch actor-father who sold his soul for success, his two sons unable to escape both the shadow of their father’s success or arrive at the grit needed to succeed in life, and a wife-mother mired in opiate addiction and delusion, dreaming that she would have had a happier life if she had become a lesbian convent nun, away from being imprisoned in a house of bickering men who can only discover traces of honesty in the dregs of whiskey.
Since all three men are in some way failed actors, the play excavates layers of dissembling, concluding with an insane Ophelia-like monologue by the wife-mother imprisoned in male insanity. On Friday opening night the pacing of the first act was too uniform in rapid-fire dialogue permitting little dramatic modulation. The viewer remains alienated from the characters because there is an obvious mask of genteel hypocrisy in everybody’s reticence and pronouncements. By the second act the play had steadied and the characters became alive, earning some sympathy for their plight, yet from start to finish Wendell Scherer’s portrayal of Edmund Tyrone contained a helpless affable charm that stood out like bedrock throughout the performance.
Lou Trapani as pater James Tyrone came alive in the second act and by the third and fourth act he was blazingly memorable as a man who contended with greatness and retired with modest success while despising his ultimate mediocrity, as he presided confusingly over two sons with talent, one who hated himself, and one so winsome, charming, and sensible that he was dysfunctional and ill. Trapani was especially lit with theatrical blaze in the third act.
As the elder brother Jamie, Kevin Archambault successfully shed his stiff, false courtesy in the third act and equaled his rivals in dramatic intensity and authenticity, carrying off with marvelous spontaneity what is perhaps the most difficult scene in the play, the brotherly Judas kiss.
As the only woman in this slightly abridged staging, veteran Lisa Lynds adeptly vacillated in and out of delusion and dementia with effective and disconcerting ironies that glancingly attained absurd mordant humor, culminating in a transcendent poetic conclusion while the men spoke only prose as they aspired to poetry. The attractive and functional set by Bill Ross is period Connecticut to a t.
So why is this play once-again relevant? This sinking, dysfunctional family bears a parallel resonance with our sinking political state mired in delusional rhetoric and inability to face reality. Not much has psychologically changed in American society since the 1956 premiere of the play. The play remains shockingly vital to our current predicament mired in drugs, dreaming delusions, and fatuous blarney. There are phrases in this searing play that have long since passed into popular culture, much as some of Shakespeare’s lines quoted in the play. As this republic grows old, looking into the mirror can be disconcerting and uncomfortable, yet it continues to be the artist’s and actor’s role to uphold an honest mirror to society—results be damned. This play remains one of the few great American classics. A pity that there are only two more performances left.