News Column

Kansas City Actors Theatre brings classic to life in 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'

September 9, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 09--Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is among the saddest -- and greatest -- American plays ever written.

The Kansas City Actors Theatre does this masterpiece justice and then some. The performances are exceptional across the board, and Merle Moores, as the tormented Mary Tyrone, is brilliant.

O'Neill wrote this play in the early 1940s and ordered that it remain unpublished until after his death. He gave the manuscript to his wife, Carlotta Monterey, with a letter thanking her for her love, which gave him the faith "to face my dead at last and write this play -- write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones."

The Tyrones closely resembled the O'Neills, in other words, and the play's brutal emotional exchanges fueled by drugs and alcohol were presumably based on real confrontations the playwright witnessed or participated in.

Set in 1912, O'Neill fixes the action of the play in a summer cottage near the seashore in Connecticut, where the family is gathered. James Tyrone, the patriarch, is in his 60s, a former matinee idol who sacrificed a promising acting career for decades of touring in a lucrative melodrama. His wife, Mary Tyrone, has struggled with an addiction to morphine, which began during the difficult delivery of her youngest son, Edmund.

Edmund, the stand-in for O'Neill, is an aspiring writer who has already traveled part of the world as a merchant seaman but has now contracted "consumption" (otherwise known as tuberculosis). Also on hand is Edmund's older brother, Jamie, a dissolute actor who spends any cash he may have on liquor and prostitutes.

This is a deeply moving, humanistic play, despite the raw honesty with which family members accuse, deny and justify. The family dynamics are defined by guilt, anger and shame. Happiness isn't an option for these people, but the fact that O'Neill could write so honestly about old suppurating wounds lends the work an uplifting quality.

The Kansas City Actors Theatre production, directed by John Rensenhouse, brings together prodigiously talented performers. Paul Vincent O'Connor, making his debut with the company, is an imposing presence as James Tyrone, delivering an unfussy, economical performance as the penny-pinching actor who will hire only the cheapest doctors to treat his family.

Brian Paulette registers some of his best work as Jamie, the defeated son who is never good enough in his father's eyes.

Doogin Brown is impressive as Edmund, particularly in the latter section of the play when he speaks one of the most evocative monologues in the piece. Edmund describes the fleeting moments of transcendence he has experienced in or near the sea, in which he glimpses the meaning of existence.

Anchoring the production is Moores, whose nuanced performance captures all of Mary's shifting emotions as she fights a losing battle with morphine addiction. As she deteriorates she finds it impossible to reconcile her conflicted feelings. She wants to be alone but complains of abject loneliness. She feels overly protective of Edmund but blames him for her addiction. The inconsistencies are maddening -- for her and her family.

Indeed, every member of this family carries a burden of guilt. It's a cycle that can't be broken.

Yes, it's a bleak tale, but the play contains surprising moments of potent humor. As we watch Edmund and Jamie stealing drinks from the old man's jealously guarded bonded bourbon and then replacing the missing liquor with water, the acerbic comedy is irresistible.

Jessica Franz turns in a nicely executed performance as Cathleen, the Irish maid, who is prone to pragmatic observations about the quality of men. A scene in which Mary encourages her to help herself to her employer's whiskey is inherently amusing.

The physical production is consistently impressive. Jim Misenheimer's set and Douglas Macur's lighting work in concert to evoke the haunting atmosphere of a living room in which sunshine, fog and nightfall affect the changing moods of what is, indeed, a very long day.

Genevieve V. Beller's costumes are handsomely realized and instantly fix the time period for the viewers. Greg Mackender has composed a delicate score that he employs sparingly but effectively.

This is a play I read long ago. I've seen film and TV versions of it, but I'd never actually seen it on stage until now. It was worth the wait.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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