Long Day's Journey Into Night

Lantern Theater, St. Stephen's Theater, 923 Ludlow St., through Nov. 24 (893-1145).

The able actors in Lantern's Long Day's Journey go a great distance in baring their characters' private agonies.
"One's outer life passes in a solitude haunted by the masks of others; one's inner life passes in a solitude hounded by the masks of oneself."

In the 1920s, Eugene O'Neill had experimented with using masks in the theater literally; by the time he wrote this in 1932, he was starting to use them more metaphorically. In his autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey Into Night (written in 1940, and neither published nor performed until 1956, after his death), the characters (all but one, at least) systematically strip away their masks, and by the end of the play are left to sit silently in their shared isolation and despair.

In Lantern Theater's admirable production of Long Day's Journey, the able actors go a great distance in baring their characters' private agonies.

It's a very long day indeed for the members of the Tyrone family, gathered in their fog-wrapped family summer house in Connecticut in 1912. The 24-year-old Edmund (O'Neill's biographical stand-in) learns that he has consumption. His mother Mary relapses into her morphine addiction. His older brother Jamie, stewed in booze (as they all are, by the play's end), confesses that, in his heart of hearts, he'd love to see Edmund fail and die. The family members accuse the others of causing their own and the others' maladies and addictions; each wishes the others dead or, worse yet, wishes that they or the others had never been born. Thankfully, Edmund and his father do succeed in sitting around the table through the long night, breaking through their isolation into something that might amount to some form of shared self-revelation and tentative mutual forgiveness.

The emotions are all there; but the Lantern actors rarely fully let down the masks of their technical characterizations. Allison Green shows some rare flashes of Mary's vulnerability before she retreats into her narcotic haze. David Bardeen, as Edmund, is capable and at times quite touching; but he is perhaps too nice, and is certainly unconvincingly Nietzschean. Russ Widdall, as Jamie, is terrifying in his final revelatory confession to his brother, and at key moments lets us see the character's profound attachment to his mother; but for the most part the actor hides behind the mask of Jamie's sneering cynicism. And Guil Fisher, like James Tyrone, Senior (and the playwright's father James O'Neill, on whom he is modeled), is every inch the artistically bankrupt aging pretty-boy actor. But he reads more like a barrel-chested, toupeed, suntanned, veteran actor of the 20th century (Fisher has a long list of credits dating back to Playhouse 90) than a matinee idol of the 1880s, and so he ends up hiding himself and Tyrone behind the mask of the character's Irish brogue.

As with Lantern's debut season at St. Stephen's Theater last year, the production values are high (with designs by Hal Sawyer and Jim Fraatz). And director Maureen Scullion keeps the action moving, plunging the characters, in medias res, into their family squabbles and accusations, with high energy levels and overlapping dialogue.

And, with judicious cuts here and there, she has miraculously trimmed the running time to under three hours. I did miss Jamie's long story about resting his head on the breast of Fat Vi the prostitute and reciting the poetry of Ernest Dowson at her; and Edmund's long description of that time on the beach, when the veil parted and he became one with sun and sand, "like a saint's vision of beatitude," when "for a second there is meaning." And I missed some of the more striking theatrical images of the play: Tyrone, tipsily balanced on top of the table, unscrewing one light bulb after another in the chandelier, as he contemplates the life he has wasted; and Mary, regressing to her days in a convent school, suddenly playing a Chopin waltz offstage with her arthritic fingers.

No one ever said this stuff was easy.

-- Cary M. Mazer