In his best-known play, Eugene O’Neill introduces the character of Cathleen—maidservant to the wretched, drug-abusing, mutually abusive Tyrone household—in typically novelistic fashion. “She is a buxom Irish peasant,” O’Neill writes, “in her early twenties, with a red-cheeked comely face, black hair and blue eyes—amiable, ignorant, clumsy, and possessed of a dense, well-meaning stupidity.”
You wonder if a raven-haired Irish lass, or maybe a casting director, had just broken up with him. An actor friend of mine who had her first professional gig playing Cathleen tells me it’s a great part to cut your teeth on, because you offer the few moments of levity in what is otherwise a three-hour series of soul-gutting excerpts from a lifelong family quarrel. Even if you’re no good, you can feel the audience’s relief every time you walk onstage.
Helen Hedman, who plays the maid in Arena Stage’s new revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, is fine in the role, though she in no way resembles O’Neill’s weirdly specific physical description. If her game isn’t quite on the elevated plane of Helen Carey’s performance as Mary Tyrone, well, no one else here is as good as Carey, either. As the neglected middle-aged wife who feels compelled to hide her morphine addiction without managing to hide a thing, Carey has the most layered role and gives the most insidious performance. After a long evening spent in the dour company of Mary, her husband and their two adult sons—the men are all alcoholics of varying functionality—hers is the sadness that follows you home.
O’Neill’s published oeuvre runs to 46 plays. The funny one, Ah, Wilderness!, just preceded Long Day’s Journey at Arena. It’s been posited as the fanciful, sunshine-pop B-side to Long Day’s Journey’s midnight ballad—O’Neill’s early life as he wished it had been.
Journey shows us the way it really was, at least to him. Its characters match in age the O’Neill household circa 1912, when the play is set, but the likenesses go well beyond that. James, the miserly father whose fiscal and emotional penny-pinching enslaves his wife and alienates his sons, mirrors O’Neill’s pop in key biographical particulars: He’s an Irish immigrant who found success as an actor in his 20s, widely admired for his talent and versatility. The popularity of his turn in a crowd-pleasing role (unnamed in Journey, but it was The Count of Monte Cristo in real life) led him to reprise it profitably for years, ultimately trading his reputation as a gifted artist for that of a tired old hack.
The playwright took no more pains to disguise himself than he had his old man. His analogue, Edmund, is a despondent former merchant seaman whose violent cough and chronic fatigue portend a diagnosis of tuberculosis—the same malady that sent O’Neill to the sanatorium where his playwriting career began.
O’Neill’s physical recovery and subsequent success—four Pulitzer Prizes for drama, including a posthumous one for this play; a Nobel Prize; and an American theatrical tradition that remains incalculably in his debt—seem to have brought him no joy at all. Depression and alcoholism permeated his life. Failing health kept him from writing during his final decade, compounding the frustration that had always plagued him. (He preferred to write longhand, which hand tremors made increasingly difficult after his mid-50s. In Journey, which he wrote in 1941, Mary refers to her morphine as medicine for the pain in her hands—a cruel, if clearly unintentional, bit of foreshadowing.)
When O’Neill’s third wife arranged for the play to be published three years after he died, she defied the 25-year posthumous interval he had requested. What remains opaque is why a writer so prolific and so attuned to the innumerable permutations of misery felt the need to transcribe his own life so directly at all. This preponderance of autobiography makes it almost impossible to consider Journey purely as a work of fiction, and the misery of O’Neill’s final years in particular makes its somewhat ambiguous ending feel unequivocally hopeless.
Director Robin Phillips struggles to make this hulking enterprise not feel hidebound by all that history, even though it’s inherently an exercise in it, with revelatory monologue after revelatory monologue. (Beware: Act 2 runs longer than Act 1.) Eventually, you lock into its doomed, unhurried rhythm.
As elder sibling Jamie, who has become in his mid-30s a boozing, whoring wastrel incapable of supporting himself, Andy Bean earns the least sympathy. His tired, hollow eyes do a lot of good work, but when it comes time for him to explain tearfully that he’ll always work against his younger brother, the speech’s complexity eludes him. Nathan Darrow’s mournful performance as Edmund is more alert, but both actors are at their best when they’re watching their mother warily for signs of relapse.
The family’s cycle of recrimination has a queasy verisimilitude: Complications from carrying Edmund to term caused Mary’s illness. James’s insistence on taking her to a cheap pusher of a doctor instead of hiring a more reputable physician (they’re all out to extort you!) left Mary hooked on morphine. As the family steels itself for bad news about Edmund’s cough—“just a summer cold,” Mary tells herself with a junkie’s unshakable faith—there’s the prospect of James, Sr. cheaping out on his son’s care this time.
As James, Peter Michael Goetz offers a frustrating performance: His barrel-chested, delcamatory style of speaking seems appropriate to a retired stage actor, but he seems incapable of downsizing his emotions to the scale of true investigation.
Or maybe, again, it’s just that Carey is acting circles around everyone. Early in Act 2, her song of praise for the fog that envelopes the Tyrones’ crumbling New England cottage lowers the temperature palpably: “It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel everything has changed and nothing is what it seemed to be.”
You need only replace “fog” with “dope” to see how much could go wrong there.
I suppose the measure of success for a production of Long Day’s Journey into Night might be the extent to which one recognizes his own family in the doomed Tyrones, instead of thinking, “Better them than me.” I hail from a straightedge clan that never touches liquor and barely drinks wine or beer, but there were similarities I could spot. The maid’s scenes offered little respite.