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Ghost of Stratford’s Journey proves tough to exorcize

3 out of 4 stars

Diana Leblanc's 1994 production of Long Day's Journey Into Night at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival was a landmark in Canadian and, indeed, North American theatre history.

Starring a dream cast of William Hutt and Martha Henry, Peter Donaldson and Tom McCamus, it played two seasons and to this day continues to seduce and destroy viewers in the version captured for television and available on DVD.

Now, Soulpepper – in its ongoing conscious or unconscious Oedipal struggle with Stratford – has invited Leblanc to recreate the magic with Irish-American playwright Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece. While lightning does not strike twice, the new version has scenes that are incredibly wrenching – in a way, it suffers most by the comparison it invites.

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Long Day's Journey Into Night is precisely what it says on the label – a lengthy dope- and drink-filled day in the life of the dysfunctional Irish-American Tyrone family at their New England summer home circa 1912.

Written in 1942, but not performed until 1956, three years after the playwright's death, O'Neill's play is the progenitor of American family drama, a work that's been much imitated, but never equalled.

James Tyrone (Joseph Ziegler) is a former matinee idol turned landowning miser, an Irish immigrant who sold his grand artistic dreams as a stage actor for financial security, yet is still racked with fears he'll end up in the poorhouse.

His second-generation Irish-American wife Mary (Nancy Palk) is just back from a sanatorium where she was supposed to have kicked her morphine addiction.

Their thirtysomething son Jamie (Evan Buliung) is a cynical slacker who spend his nights boozing in the local whorehouse, while younger brother Edmund (Gregory Prest) is a more ambitious, but sickly poetic type who is "a little in love with death" – a love that may soon be requited.

As the two brothers, Buliung and Prest really seize the stage – living up to their illustrious predecessors, while making the parts entirely their own. As we saw recently in Ibsen's Ghosts, Prest has an almost freaky ability to burn with an intensity that suggests a lighting designer is somehow illuminating his performance from within. Edmund's melancholy description to his father of life at sea is his showcase moment here, the morbidity of the moment brilliantly uncut by how clearly proud he is of his ability to enrapture the man he loves and loathes. (Leblanc's tactic here in this intimate production is to delicately tease out as much of the love as possible and show the loathing as its flip side.)

Equally impressive as Jamie, Buliung has a tour-de-force scene of bitter, angry comedy when he relates with Broadway bluster a late-night liaison with a prostitute named Fat Violet. It's a cruel scene for the audience, as Buliung keeps making you laugh, then delivers a punch of self-loathing just while your belly is soft. His performance practically leaves you doubled over.

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As for James and Mary Tyrone, I found it difficult to wrest the superb performances of Hutt and Henry out of my head while watching Ziegler and Palk. Unfair, perhaps, but inevitable in the circumstances.

Palk's Mary is suitably bizarre from a technical point of view. As she descends into the fog of the New England evening, she runs around the stage in a disturbing manner, like the ghost of a girl, and there's an uncanny childishness in her voice, too. But the performance fascinates more than it devastates.

There's something white-bread about both her Mary and also Ziegler's James Tyrone, who says he "got rid of an Irish brogue you could cut with a knife" to play Shakespeare onstage, and here has jettisoned it entirely from his casual speech as well.

Ziegler portrays Tyrone as a pathetic figure, unsteady and with a scratchy, almost hoarse voice. The old miser often appears befuddled and he's easily outshouted by his two sons. The soldierly quality of his bearing, the studied, resonant voice, the peasant qualities that O'Neill describes are absent.

In one sense then, Ziegler gives us a new take on this character, as an actor should – and in his late-night talks with his sons, he is as spellbinding a storyteller as ever. But the rawness required for O'Neill to truly resonate only comes across with the younger, more muscular performances in this production.

Long Day's Journey Into Night

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  • Written by Eugene O'Neill
  • Directed by Diana Leblanc
  • Starring Joseph Ziegler, Nancy Palk
  • At the Young Centre in Toronto

Long Day's Journey Into Night runs through March 31.

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