For eight years, Quintessence produced energetic, masculine productions of classic theater: Chekhov, Marlowe, Moliere, heavy on the Shakespeare. A powerful if unsubtle production of Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT marks a welcome first foray into modern American theater (unless we count a 2014 version of O’Neil’s Mourning Becomes Electra, itself a reworking of a classic Greek text).
The play suits Alexander Burns’s directorial style, which always shows a fidelity to the beauty and tone of the script. O’Neil portrays a dysfunctional literary-artistic family who pepper their recriminations, fleeting affections, and self-disgust with extended quotes from Shakespeare, Baudelaire, and Dowson, recitations in which the strong Quintessence cast revel.
The director’s set emphasizes the claustrophobic intimacy of the semi-autobiographical tale, replicating the living room dimensions from the actual O’Neill family home and packing it with wooden furniture. We feel the consumptive suffocation of the playwright’s stand-in, writer Edmund Tyrone (James Davis), who has returned from travels at sea to this summer home in Connecticut bought with money from the stage career of his actor father James Tyrone (Paul Hebron). Perhaps this time, matriarch Mary Tyrone (E. Ashley Izard) really is recovering from her decades-long morphine addiction. Older brother Jamie (John Carpenter) isn’t trying to fight his own alcoholism.
O’Neill’s play is rightly admired for its psychological insight into addiction and the burdens of memory, and his ever-timely examination is a must-see for anyone familiar with the devastation of addiction among friends and family. At Quintessence, Burns and his cast capture the blame, shame, and anger which course through each character.
Hebron and Carpenter use controlled turns of emotion to convey the manipulations and turmoil of James Tyrone Senior and Junior. Izard’s Mary may begin her drift to dreamy dissolution a little prematurely, but she does so convincingly and evocatively. We appreciate the hard stares of her family. The sneer and cruelty which Davis brings to his Edmund gives the role a welcome bite.
It’s strange to call a 3.5 hour production “stripped down”, but Quintessence has reduced the work to its emotional bones. Burns is characteristically unconcerned with the subtleties of personality and interplay. His skill in communicating the essence of a classic text often worked well with Elizabethan and Greek plays (most especially in a fast-paced Hamlet, in which Carpenter also impressed). It’s a style he transfers to LONG DAY’S JOURNEY, giving us a uncomplicated look at a great American work. A better production would demand more emotional gears from the characters, but this remains an excellent play well done.
[Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Avenue] October 5-22, 2017; quintessencetheatre.org/long-days-journey