The “power of ensemble” with Quintessence Theatre Group
Quintessence Theatre Group’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical opus, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a smooth execution of a play that in my opinion has some issues (perhaps one of the reasons, besides the negative portrayal of his family members, O’Neill requested it never be performed). Director Alexander Burns avoids these issues by keeping things simple, and focusing on the power of ensemble in a play that can quickly morph into an egotistical monologue battle.
The play takes place at the Tryone family home over the course of a foggy day in August 1912. Edmund Tyrone (Eugene O’Neill’s fictional counterpart), is an aspiring writer in his early 20s who has just returned from abroad to the family’s summer home. This is actually the family’s only home, as James, the patriarch, was an actor and thus the family spent the theater season living in hotels and on trains. Edmund’s mother, Mary (E. Ashley Izard), recently returned from a sanatorium for her morphine addiction, though we soon learn about the rest of the family’s demons. Mary is still guilt-stricken over the loss of her second child, and is consumed with the past – after all, “what is the past, but the present,” she argues to her exasperated husband. Oldest son Jamie (Josh Carpenter) spends the little money he has on whiskey and women, and it’s implied he could be a great actor like his father if it weren’t for those addictions. Edmund is battling a “summer cold” (read: probably consumption), while James (Paul Hebron) regrets abandoning Shakespeare for a more profitable acting role that would forever type-cast him. James is very stingy with money, despite his wealth from acting and real estate. Edmund and Jamie take issue that their father often cries poor, and feel it contributed to their mother’s addiction. James worries about his sons’ “morbid” ideals, and dislikes that Edmund’s favorite writers are Nietzsche, Poe, and Oscar Wilde – degenerates! – and wishes Edmund would embrace Shakespeare, who James argues was obviously Irish Catholic. Edmund grumbles and responds sarcastically, “Yes, facts don’t mean a thing, do they? What you want to believe, that’s the only truth!” The past is the present indeed.
The acting is excellent all around. Paul Hebron plays James in a more sympathetic light than one would expect. He keeps the cadence and movements of a classically-trained actor without venturing into stereotype. Josh Carpenter as Jamie stays rather one-note as the womanizing, self-loathing alcoholic until the final act, where he truly blew me away (and does the impossible – manages to convincingly play somebody incredibly, pathetically drunk). James Davis as Edmund finds the right balance of physical weakness and intellectual strength for the role, with a little dose of smarmy that sometimes accompanies young writers. The real stand out is E. Ashley Izard and her brilliant portrayal of Mary. She seamlessly oscillates between reasonable and manic before the character’s deep descent. It would be incredibly easy to over-act any one of her tirades, but Izard lets Mary keep her humanity with a foot in reality for the majority of the day. I also must mention the adorable Cassandra Nary, who plays the stock Irish maid character and provides some comic relief.
The cast also works together well as an ensemble, which is quite the feat in a story about isolation and loneliness. This is a believable family. The early scenes, when the family’s conversations bounce quickly back and forth between argument and laughter (sometimes in the same sentence), feel particularly natural and familiar to those of us with Irish American families. My only gripe is that too much gravitas is given to some of these earlier arguments. What should be quick bickering becomes full-out rage, and causes the final act to feel less climatic. I did see the play opening weekend when perhaps the energy was extra high.
The set, designed by the director, underscores the father’s miserly sensibilities – a simple living room set-up, wooden planked floor and plain walls. The room is small and is filled with furniture. According to a Phindie interview with Izard, Burns visited the O’Neill’s home in Connecticut (now a museum) and used the measurements of their real living room. I like the impulse to create a feeling of claustrophobia, but I do wish the actors had a little bit more room to play and move. Jane Casanave’s costumes also speak to the patriarch’s frugality; the men’s suits are slightly shabby and ill-fitting, but clean and evocative of the time period. Mary’s final costume and wig are expectably haunting and lovely. Ellen Moore rounds out the design team as lighting designer, and subtly takes us on the journey from early morning to late night. I am grateful that this production forgoes flooding the stage with literal fog – one of the many metaphors of the play that O’Neill beats like a dead horse as it is.
Be forewarned – Long Day’s Journey clocks in at 3 hours and 45 minutes, including an intermission and short pause. Don’t let this deter you. Quintessence’s production is well worth your day.
Quintessence Theatre Group’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is playing at the Sedgewick Theater in Mount Airy, Philadelphia until Sunday, October 22, 2017. For tickets, call (215)987-4450, or purchase here.