It’s nervewracking to watch Mary Cavan Tyrone anxiously wring her arthritic hands and fret about whether or not her hair looks okay. You want to run to her, gently take her by the shoulders, sit her down, and tell her to stop, just stop. Nobody is out to get you. Nobody wants anything but good things for you. And can you please, please, stop worrying?
It’s this constant emotional and physical pull that drives Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s crowning achievement, currently playing at Guthrie Theater. The small cast of Helen Carey (Mary), Peter Michael Goetz (James Tyrone), John Catron (Jamie Tyrone), John Skelley (Edmund Tyrone), and Laoisa Sexton (Cathleen, the maid), operates as any good dysfunctional family would: by passive aggressively ignoring the obviously detrimental elements that are tearing their relationships apart and then exploding in frustration, only to return, apologetically, to ignoring the issues that sparked the tension in the first place.
It’s no mystery why O’Neill’s heart-wrenching drama won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and 1957 Tony Award for Best Play (as well as another Tony in 2003 for Best Revival of a Play). The story is one with which almost anyone can identify, whether you admit it or not: a family of four is simultaneously torn apart by one another’s vices and held together by that strange, unidentifiable bond that only blood can create.
Helen Carey as Mary
by Michael Brosilow
James, the patriarch, is an ex-actor haunted by a career decision that he believes to be the downfall of his fame. His obsession now lies in acquiring property, drinking, and saving money at all costs, to the point of sacrificing the health of his son, Edmund. Edmund is the baby of the family, and very ill. He’s recently returned from his world travels with nothing to show but a “bad summer cold,” as diagnosed by Mary, his overprotective mother. The rest of the family members know that it’s much worse than that, but appease Mary in her delusion—they have bigger problems to deal with, namely Mary herself. Mary lives in the past, constantly regaling her husband and sons with stories from her schooldays in the convent, her father’s never-ending doting, and her long-gone dream of being a concert pianist. At first, she sounds like just any other nagging, worrying mother. But shortly, it becomes clear that the tiptoeing and whispering behind Mary’s back is because she is more than physically fragile: she’s mentally unstable, and a recovering (or so they wish) morphine addict.
The cause of her addiction is complicated, and is the driving factor of the drama. Perhaps it is compensation for a previous miscarriage. Perhaps it stems from Edmund’s birth—a way to blanket her guilt for initially not wanting him as well as hide from the fact that she blames him for her getting sick after his birth. Perhaps it’s her way of coping with her husband’s selfishness or her eldest son’s alcoholism. Whatever the root of the addiction, Carey’s performance as this sincerely devastated woman is captivating, engulfing you with genuine, raw sadness and defeat. Somewhere, deep down, you know Mary wants to get better, to fight the draw of the drug, but after a lifetime of compromise and disappointment, she’s too tired to fight: she longs for the night, when the drugs take her away to whatever dreamland she chooses to create.
The progression from tepid cautiousness to disgruntled frustration and anger in Goetz, Catron, and Skelley’s performances aptly balance Carey’s gradual downfall into her drug-induced haze. The men each pretend to be strong, but are just as weak as the woman whom they blame for all their problems. Goetz channels much of his energy in highlighting James’s stubbornness. This is a man who refuses to accept anything but his own opinion, even though knows full well he doesn’t have the answers. Catron shines as Jamie, his performance expertly capturing the universal desire of first-borns to be perfect. When the pressure gets to be too much, he seeks consolation the same way his father does—with alcohol—and readily sinks into a drunken stupor, trying to forget, even for just a little while, his duties and shortcomings. As Edmund, Skelley faces a difficult challenge: his is a character who, on the outside, appears to be the weakest and least problematic of the four main characters, while in reality, he is the most important character—the one the others blame for all their problems. Skelley tackles this delicate role by easing into it slowly, playing a quiet, peacemaker-type in the first act, then allowing Edmund full range of emotion and frustration by the end of the second act.
The complex characters are offset by a simple set, designed by John Lee Beatty, and nondescript costumes, designed by Ann Hould-Ward. Together, the elements appear to do no more than provide a blank canvas upon which the characters can grow and develop. But the plainness and simplicity serve as more than a backdrop: they are a metaphor for the Tyrone family itself. The cracks and flaws, stains and scars are all there, and no amount of paint or good intentions can hide them.
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Through February 23
Guthrie Theater, 818 Second St. S., Mpls., 612-377-2224