Sunday, March 18, 2012

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
BY EUGENE O'NEILL
PRESENTED BY THE ACTOR'S CO-OP

This is the first Los Angeles stage production I've seen in a long while in which I felt like almost every minute of the three and a half hour run time was necessary and well executed (are you allowed to cut Eugene O'Neill if you're not head of a motion picture studio?) The Actor's Co-op, under the direction of Marianne Savell and with incredibly capable actors from the company, have put under the lights a gripping, mature production of O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece that falls just short of transcendent, and let me tell you, that's quite the compliment coming from me.

This is one of my favorite types of stories in which the characters dictate the action of the play, as opposed to the plot. And no plot could match the poetry of O'Neill's words and characters and the life that these actors fight to put into them, laying a piece of their soul on stage for all to see. A family of four: Nan McNamara plays the medicated matriarch, Mary Tyrone, as a girlish soul, a ghost of who she once was before her growth as a person was stunted by her overbearing, stingy, drunken, ex-actor of a husband James Tyron, brought to life with fierceness and a surprising vulnerability by Bruce Ladd. James is none too pleased with his eldest son, James Tyrone, a drunkard and failure in his eyes, played by David Scales, who has influenced his younger brother, Edmund Tyrone, with his dark heart. Daniel J Roberts naturally brings a balancing act of sensitivity, intelligence, ignorance, despair, loathing and most importantly a desire to grasp onto what little hope remains intact to the character of Edmund. In fact, I've just described each of these characters and the performances in this show. O'Neill has crafted these characters, at the end of their rope, each who loved too much but are too imperfect to know how to do it well. Who fight as hard as they can for that last shred of hope and possibility. And each actor allows us to see every angle of these restless and lost souls, loving and hating them, blaming and finding forgiveness in them - we understand them. No one is the villain and no one is the victim. As they un-weave a carefully knit web of self-denial and false security in each other, each ironically with their own vice, we hope for them as well. Their histories unfurl in their interplay and we see Mary crumble on the stage before us, until James Tyron is left holding in his arms what is one of the most staggering visual metaphors I've ever seen in the final few minutes of a play. I was deeply moved.

Playing the fifth character Cathleen, the hired help, Selah Victor, brings an unaffected soul to the proceedings that allows Mary to free herself momentarily from the suffocating presence of the men in her life and we're allowed to see her for who she is. And while Cathleen is a necessary character for this reason, I felt an opportunity was missed. She didn't quite resonate with that spark of life that would have placed her outside of the world of these characters, instead she felt to near the world weariness of them. It's a choice and not a bad one, but one I feel, if a little more light came from the character, another dimension would have been added to the show, and really allowed us to conceptualize just how corrupted this family unit had become. Nitpicking, really. A tough balancing act and one you may not want to mess with, as the tone of the show is near perfect; to add an element such as that if handled incorrectly could border on distracting.

However, what almost derailed the show just as it was beginning could have easily been avoided. The performances began a little hesitant, nerves of the actors perhaps, within minutes they found their natural flow, so this wasn't the problem. The problem is what makes the play a difficult one to pull off, where to begin the decline of Mary Tyrone, when to show the facade start to crack. In my humble opinion, they began too early, almost from the first few moments of the show. Somewhere along the way, between the actress and director, this was a choice that was made. Mary's energy was too scattered, too nervous, there was nothing to hide, nothing to wonder about. This decision sacrificed, in the beginnings of the play, a certain nuance to ms McNamara's performance, and kept her from exploring the full extent of Mary's arch. These nuances I hoped for in voice and movement came back into the play later, especially with the moments shared alone with Cathleen. Fortunately I found myself unconcerned, I patiently waited, thankfully not for long, for the show to catch up with the performance, and when it did, McNamara was riveting. Another almost hour long sequence shared between Ladd and Roberts, father and youngest son, was an exquisite exchange between two seasoned actors - worth the price of admission alone to see actors actually listening to each other as opposed to waiting for their turn to speak. Another compliment I can lay on all five of them.

I can't finish up without talking about two other things. First the inventive set, a maze of bookcases, full of much referenced books, hiding other areas of the house between their staggered placement. This brilliant design allowed us to feel the depth of the space and in turn the emptiness these characters lived in. The lighting design smartly highlighted this effect.

The second is something I discussed with my fellow theatre enthusiast while leaving the show, is simply the difference between the tone of this show compared to many of the other current, original works being produced now days. It seems like the current trend in original productions about characters with problems simply exist for the writer to complain about how horrible life is and how poorly they were treated, subjecting the audience to shallow shouting matches and pity-me-antics, most often times touching on things of "topical importance". This seems to be an LA-centric disposition. The shows lack the depth and maturity writers like O'Neill used as profound tools, but they also lack one very important thing, hope. The desire of the characters involved to seek out that glimmer of hope, no matter how difficult it may be for them. It has become the modern tragedians aspiration that everyone has succumbed to tragedy before they ever had a chance to live...and to me, that's not tragic - that's pathetic. You have to begin high before you can fall to the earth. Up and coming writers, tragedy cannot be found without first showing us hope and empathy.

I hope you all take an evening to go see this wonderful, layered production. You can tell they care about their theatre.

Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill presented by The Actor's Co-op. 1760 North Gower Street, Los Angeles, CA 90028 (323) 462-8460. March 16 - April 29, Fri and Sat at 7:30pm, Sun at 2pm.
For more information: http://actorsco-op.org/

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