By: Anita W. Harris
Some events are worth journeying up the 405 Freeway.
Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, at the Geffen Playhouse through March 18, is one of them. This powerful performance portrays one family’s pivotal day through impeccable acting upon a beautifully set stage, dramatizing the deep pain and fierce love that bind its four members indelibly together.
The play begins at dawn, a rising sun illuminating the breathtaking set of the Tyrone Family summer home on the Atlantic shore. Designer Tom Buderwitz uses a variety of textures, including wood, brick and semi-transparent screens, to evoke three areas of the spacious home– back porch complete with water pump, 1912 living room and wooden stairs leading to bedrooms.
Additional screens at either side of the stage serve as backdrops for projections of rolling clouds, seascapes and images of writers who grace the family bookshelves. Continuing the literary theme, a forlorn poem is heard between acts recited by two alternating voices, one of which is O’Neill’s from a rare recording made before he died in 1953.
In this ambience, the actors expertly unfold the story of a family whose foundation rests in old memories they are unable to forget. Alfred Molina astounds with his impressive stage presence and very natural Irish accent, embodying patriarch James, an actor and frugal property owner. Jane Kaczmarek portrays nervous wife and mother Mary with understated finesse, her every expression and movement painstakingly true to her tormented character, more notably in the second half as her devastating truths become apparent.
Stephen Louis Grush as swaggering older son Jamie and Colin Woodell as the younger, more delicate Edmund are similarly compelling in their roles as inheritors of their parents’ pain and love, especially Woodell, whose consumptive character carries the burden of the family’s traumatic legacy while perhaps offering its only hope.
As bright morning progresses into midday, amber afternoon, evening and dark night, these four sympathetic characters interact as a family would, both “normally” and not (along with welcome, mostly humorous, interjections by housekeeper Cathleen, breezily played by Angela Goethals). Every moment of the three-hour run time is riveting as characters dance around each other physically, verbally and emotionally. Every pass reveals layers of memory, hurt, secrets, denials and the use of various “poisons” to cope. Conversations circle backward in time like an ocean’s undercurrents, allowing us to discern the murky tidal patterns that define this family as a whole and pull each member into its depths.
The dialogue in this most personal of O’Neill’s plays is, of course, masterful, infused with literary nuance and everyday emotion. And Jeanie Hackett directs the play perceptively, from choreographing very physical interactions, both tender and violent, to carefully considering inflections for the rich, imagistic dialogue, to orchestrating moments of humor such as the running gag of watering down the whiskey.
The result is a poignant experience of family dynamics that will continue to haunt you like the ghosts that linger in the Tyrone house, always there, never wanting to leave.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A., through March 18, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 7pm, Saturdays at 1pm and 7pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $43-$90. For tickets and information, call the box office at (310) 208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.org.