Sunday, 29 September 2013

Fine cast buoys grim O'Neill classic

Bill Rankin

The Citadel Theatre gives its audience several surefire crowd pleasers each season. It has done Beauty and the Beast a couple of times in the past half dozen years, and the Sound of Music and the wacky Spamalot, among others. But Bob Baker also programs theatre that can depress, even when it's served as a musical. Ride the Cyclone is a songfest about teens sent to their graves before their time, and Next to Normal manages to entertain while probing the toxic effects of living with a mental patient.

The opening work of the company's 48th season, Eugene O'Neill's grim autobiographical drama about the Tyrone family, is in a category of its own as a work of art that challenges an audience's tolerance for unhappy people in unhappy situations.

The wonder, though, is that Long Day's Journey Into Night, all three-and-a-half hours of it, a  a play where four characters burdened by addiction, mortal sickness, guilt and chronic self-delusion natter at and viciously judge one another, can still be compelling entertainment.
Much of the success of this production can be credited to the way Tom Wood portrays the villain of the piece: James Tyrone. The vain, alcoholic patriarch of the Tyrone clan is the engine that drives the family dysfunction O'Neill so relentlessly explores, and Wood plays the role with symphonic depth, charting the domestic drama through its descent into hopelessness and in the case of James's wife, Mary, oblivion. Without a strong James Tyrone, the play won't work, and ironically, Wood, playing a man who has little to give, gives this production the security it needs to hold course till the end.

The whole cast is strong. John Ulyatt as James Jr. appears restless and impatient in the early going, non-descript really, like a dormant volcano, perhaps, but by the end when he rants in an alcoholic fury against his father's weaknesses and failures, the stage is Ulyatt's, and he spews forth magnificently. The words of recrimination are O'Neill's, of course, but Ullyatt delivers the acid bath for his father's dunking with demonic zeal.

Brenda Bazinet plays the woman of the house, a morphine addict whose recurring lament is that because of her husband's itinerant life as an actor, she lived like a homeless person. Her drug habit, caused by her husband's neglect, made her a dependent in every way, incapable of nurturing her two boys or resisting her husband's self-aggrandisement to protect them or herself. Bazinet takes Mary to the abyss of psychological dissolution rather conservatively. O'Neill offers cues in his words to just how distant she becomes from the fractured lives of her family, and Bazinet uses the words to shape a character who is the most extremely dysfunctional family member but who disrupts the way carbon monoxide might, a kind of smothering threat that unbalances everybody else's effort to relate. She drifts away, but she does so almost methodically, as deliberately as she withdraws periodically to get another fix.

David Patrick Fleming is the consumptive son Edmund, who has left the family before the play begins to discovery the larger world but has returned as aimless as he ever was. His destiny, we understand, is death, both literally and figuratively. Edmund is obsessed with the transgressive philosophies of Baudelaire and Nietzsche, and is unquestionably an introvert, but except for the delightful (but depressing) scene with his father playing cards in Act 3. Fleming feels more peripheral than he might have been. He's the only good thing about the family, in a way, but underneath he's a maverick and at least theoretically, a radical, and I didn't see much of that potential in his brooding-poet persona. Nonetheless, for a young actor, he holds his own with a much more experienced cast.

In Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill proves Tolstoy's point about the two types of families, perhaps. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." An audience isn't expected to identify with the very particular kind of pain O'Neill depicts, but he knows the scene of a train wreck is hard to resist. Dysfunction comes in degrees, and O'Neill's depiction of it helps define the dark end of the spectrum for good.

Set and lighting designers Leslie Frankish deserves applause for the rough-hewn space and atmosphere she creates the players' miserable journey, and Stancil Campbell's lighting makes the evening go by like a long, full day.
If you go, you'll get a 15 minute break, which you will be grateful for.