Family Feuds: “Long Day’s Journey into Night”

Eugene O’Neill’s plays often pulsate with a hard-hitting thread of tragedy, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day’s Journey into Night is no exception. Yet somehow Palm Beach Dramaworks and director William Hayes tease unexpected humor and surprising performances out of this classic drama, onstage through March 6.

Maureen Anderman and Dennis Creaghan in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   At three and a half hours (including one 15-minute intermission), the show is a lengthy one, but the time slips away as you lose yourself in the widening gyre of family drama. Who doesn’t love a well-to-do mother with a dirty little secret—one she indulges even as it rips her family life to shreds?

   Semi-autobiographical in nature, Long Day’s Journey into Night was never intended for the public; it was an emotionally draining labor of love for O’Neill, who penned it in a therapeutic attempt to understand and forgive his volatile family. He wrote in his will: “This play is never to be performed and not to be published until 25 years after my death.” Three years later, thanks to a vindictive third wife and a tricky legal loophole, the play had its world premiere on Broadway. It is considered today to be the magnum opus of the tortured playwright, whose pessimism (realism?) deconstructed the grandeur of domestic idealism and altered the entire landscape of American theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

   All of the play’s action takes place in the living room of the Tyrones’ summer home and spans an average day in August 1912. At the core of the narrative is the family’s inability to communicate and resolve critical personal and interpersonal issues. Each member has violent, angry outbursts in which they say or do something they immediately regret and then proceed to apologize straightaway, caught in a strange and vicious cycle of miscommunication and hurt. The Tyrones’ rage-fueled conversations are like a pot that boils over every time you glance away, and the father-son relations are especially tense.

   The events in Long Day’s Journey into Night unfold slowly, allowing the family’s dysfunction to mesmerize the audience. What sets Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production apart from other iterations is the actors’ ability to captivate theatregoers despite the limitation of just one modestly appointed set and the relatively limited action that takes place over the course of one simple day. Trust us: This is not a performance where you’ll have your pick of empty seats following intermission.

Michael Stewart Allen, John Leonard Thompson, Dennis Creaghan, and Maureen Anderman in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   Maureen Anderman’s turn as the self-conscious, unhinged matriarch Mary Tyrone is extraordinarily convincing. Sometimes overbearing, sometimes detached, the remorseful Mary is both victim and culprit of her family’s destructive habits. The high, strained voice Anderson brings to the character, along with her constant and visible agitation, convey the depth of Mary’s disturbances.

   Her husband, James (played by Dennis Creaghan), was once a successful actor but has turned into a tightwad who prioritizes his miserliness over the wellbeing of his family. He takes cigars at breakfast and whisky for lunch—but then again, we all have our vices. James Jr. (John Leonard Thompson) refuses to take life seriously as he tries and fails to follow in his father’s footsteps. He’s a drunkard, a regular at the town brothel, an unimpressive actor, and—above all—a disappointment to his father. Pitiable Edmund (O’Neill’s alter ego brought to life by Michael Stewart Allen) is the spoiled, ailing, poetry-loving baby of the family.

John Leonard Thompson and Michael Stewart Allen in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Photo by Samantha Mighdoll

   Despite the weight of the material, the family’s relenting acceptance of their misfortunes becomes laughable at points, like when Mary insists their sad state of affairs “can’t be helped” or when James Jr. exclaims to his brother in a fit of frustration, “I love you more than I hate you.” Mistrustful, angry, and held together by their grudges, the Tyrone family simmers with pent-up resentment, communicating in gripes rather than meaningful conversation. Eventually, each devolves into his or her madness—a haunting resolution that will stay with you long after the fog rolls in and the play closes.

   As the show illustrates and Palm Beach Dramaworks so eloquently captures, the journey of a long and troubled life needs only a small push to spiral into total deterioration. Given the strength of this production, Mary’s oft-repeated words—the fate to which she has resigned herself—resonate: “None of us can help what life has done to us.”

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