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Review: Seana McKenna conducts a symphony of self-pity in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Amy Keating, left, as Cathleen and Seana McKenna as Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Emily Cooper

  • Title: Long Day’s Journey Into Night
  • Written by: Eugene O’Neill
  • Director: Miles Potter
  • Actors: Seana McKenna, Scott Wentworth, Gordon S Miller and Charlie Gallant
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Studio Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Continues to Oct. 13

rating

Eugene O’Neill was the great over-writer of American drama, but his refusal to let any symbol be subtle and his need to quickly surface all subtext can create on-stage atmospheres unlike any other English-language playwright before or since.

In his posthumously produced drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the fog that surrounds the Irish-American Tyrone family’s Connecticut house one summer day in 1912 is matched by the thick haze of words that emanates from the characters’ mouths – droplets of dialogue that coalesce into something dense, but never at all impenetrable.

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Miserly stage actor James Tyrone, his wife, Mary Tyrone, and their two wayward sons, Jamie and Edmund, wear not just their hearts but their grievances and grudges and addictions and illnesses on their sleeves.

What distinguishes Long Day’s Journey Into Night from so many of its American (and Canadian) family-drama imitators is that there are no secrets to be revealed over the play’s 3 1/2 hours.

Charlie Gallant as Edmund Tyrone in Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Emily Cooper

The Tyrones instead try to protect one another from things they already know, from morning to midnight – and fail over and over, in a gloriously gobsmacking way in the Stratford Festival’s new production of the play.

Seana McKenna is the centre of director Miles Potter’s production as the morphine-addicted materfamilias Mary – not long returned from rehab and at the start of a relapse. As the play begins after breakfast, the three men who love her are tip-toeing around her, trying to convince themselves that she went into the spare room the night before for something other than her poison.

Mary is happy to supply a steady stream of lies to aid their denial – and, when that no longer works, lays on the guilt like a pro to divide and conquer them. She guilts her husband James (Scott Wentworth), for never spending enough on the medical care she needed, or the home that she wanted; her eldest son Jamie (Gordon S Miller), for his drunkenness and whoring and being a bad brother; and her youngest son Edmund (Charlie Gallant), for the times he left, the times he stayed, and especially for getting sick with consumption, the disease that killed her father.

McKenna displays great range in the part, as she moves further and further away from her family and deeper and deeper into delusion until she seems to evaporate in front of us in her final chilling, childlike appearance. Early on, she holds Mary’s rheumatic fingers in front of her like brittle chopsticks, but gradually transforms them into batons with which she conducts her symphony of self-pity. Her best moments come when she’s truly savouring her sunken place – for instance, bobbing her head along to one of her husband’s long-winded justifications for his tight-fistedness with a hint of a smile on her face. All the Tyrones are stuck in grooves they can’t get out of, but, back on the morphine, Mary is grooving to it.

Seana McKenna and Scott Wentworth as Mary and James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

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The men largely stay out of Mary’s way until the final act, when they use her relapse and their reopened wounds as an excuse to indulge their own addictions to alcohol. Here, Wentworth, not always entirely convincing in his emotion earlier on, comes to full pathetic life as a man born into poverty whose survival instinct now threatens to destroy himself and his family.

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Both of the Tyrone boys are brilliantly portrayed. Gallant comes at the part of the sick Edmund, O’Neill’s stand-in for himself in this autobiographical play, from the inside, and his poetic reveries about sea voyages are a breath of beauty in a play that is almost oppressively bleak.

Miller takes an opposite approach, refusing to paint between the lines in his portrayal of the licentious, lush Jamie – messily following him on each mood swing, each sudden lurch from loving brother to self-hating villain. Written in 1942 but only premiered in 1956, O’Neill’s play is always straining at the outer limits of naturalism, threatening to explode into the expressionism of his rich (and under-produced, in Canada) earlier work – and Miller’s big, bold performance best embodies the dangerous extremities of the writing.

(Amy Keating rounds out the cast as the maid Cathleen, providing a couple moments of comic relief and allowing the play to pass the Bechdel Test.)

On the whole, Potter’s production in the very intimate Studio Theatre errs on the safe side – actor-forward, with stuffy and unassuming set and costumes designed by Peter Hartwell and Gillian Gallow, respectively. I longed for a moment or two of directorial daring or deconstruction – but it’s true that all these particular performers need is an arena to strut their stuff.

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