By Ellen Booraem
BROOKSVILLE — Eugene O’Neill knew all about addiction. His autobiographical play “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” ticks the boxes like a documentary on the subject. And yet it’s also a theatrical masterpiece, a stunning work of art in which four complex, despicable, oddly endearing characters hold hands on their way to rock-bottom.
Sounds depressing, but in the hands of director Patricia Conolly and her Bagaduce Theatre actors, “Long Day’s Journey” makes for an engrossing evening. Despite the drinking and fighting and cruelty and hopelessness, this rendition of the tragic Tyrone family has a warm heart.
The production is onstage at Bagaduce Theatre one more weekend, with shows at 7 p.m. Aug. 2-4 and 3 p.m. Aug. 5. Even if you spent the day out on the water, you’ll stay awake for this.
“Long Day’s Journey” mirrored O’Neill’s family and young manhood so closely that he stipulated it not be produced until after his death (at which point it won a Pulitzer). It depicts one horrible day in the lives of the Tyrone family, whose paterfamilias, James, a once-promising actor, drinks to forget that he sold out for big bucks. Elder son Jamie is an actor too, but he’s more interested in whiskey and whoring. Son Edmund, standing in for O’Neill, is a more delicate soul who has tried to mimic James’s rough and ready life only to be stricken with consumption.
We meet the Tyrones on the day Edmund gets diagnosed with tuberculosis and mother Mary, who became addicted to morphine a couple of decades ago while recovering from Edmund’s difficult birth, slides back into her drugged haze after a period of sobriety. Her three men mourn her lack of will-power while becoming progressively drunker and more argumentative. It’s no accident that a foghorn plays a starring role.
Bagaduce is a repertory company, each summer forming a troupe of equity actors and talented local amateurs who collaborate on a season’s worth of plays and staged readings. The cast in this production couldn’t be better. After the first three minutes, a bit stuttery in last Friday’s performance, the actors found their rhythm and we were off, the audience utterly absorbed.
Company co-founder Monique Fowler is a heartbreaking Mary Tyrone, finding in morphine a gateway back to her happy past as a cosseted convent girl. True to an addict’s form, she’s always on the hunt for excuses or somebody else to blame. Fowler’s expressive eyes and mobile face give us everything O’Neill hoped for in his stage directions as Mary spins from loving to sly to imploring, from angry to desolate, often in the space of one speech. Her hands are restless, finding peace only when she’s fresh from the needle.
John Wojda gives a finely tuned performance as James Tyrone, conveying the man’s eager affection and flashing temper, his pride and his shame. The man banished his Irish accent years ago, but Wojda conveys a telltale lilt when Tyrone is under stress. He and Fowler seesaw between tenderness and disgust, showing us the attraction that brought them together and the love that might have been if morphine and alcohol hadn’t drifted in like a deadly fog.
This might have been a loving family, in fact. Bryan Lescord as Jamie and Matt Falber as Edmund give insightful performances as young men desperate for a sober mother and a real home —“home” is a big word in this play — but made cynical by the past, another big word. The interplay between the sons and between sons and parents is wrenching, never more so than in Act IV, which plays like a jazz improvisation giving each character a solo. It’s here that family members reveal their true selves, seeking understanding and redemption, and it’s here that Lescord’s compassionate portrayal of the wastrel Jamie bears fruit, allowing us to sympathize when he’s at his most contemptable.
The characters do understand one another better at the end of the play. But there’s little hope of redemption.
“A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is at Bagaduce Theatre (the Fowler Farm, 176 Mills Point Road, Brooksville) through Aug. 5, 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Open seating tickets are $25. Reservations/information: www.bagaducetheatre.com or (207) 801-1536.