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November 4, 2005

Sloppy Long Day’s Journey makes an ordeal of O’Neill

Walking into the Gunder Mansion at the North Lakeside Cultural Center is like entering the year 1910. The location feels like the summer house of an upper-middle class family from a century ago, which lends itself perfectly to Collage Productions’ performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. In fact, it lends itself too perfectly: The production seems so realistic that it’s unsettling to sit through. This is not your typical setting for a play—setting a play in a beach house where the actors often stand with their backs to the audience is, shall we say, a tad ambitious. And that doesn’t even consider the fact that it is Clayton J. Horath’s directorial debut, or that Horath chose O’Neill, one of the most difficult playwrights to produce, for his initiation, or that he wrote a score for the play as well.

From the very beginning it’s clear that Horath has taken on more than he can handle, as the actors struggle to delve inside their characters and it becomes impossible to connect the spoken lines with the bodies who speak them. In a production of an O’Neill play, that disconnection can only produce one thing: disaster.

To be fair, much of the blame can be placed on O’Neill, and not Horath, for making the play so impossible to navigate. As Mary McCarthy, the legendary theater critic for the Partisan Review, said in 1946, O’Neill “did not possess the slightest ear for spoken word.” While it is clear that O’Neill developed his complex and conflict-laden characters brilliantly, he seemed to possess no intuition for how to convey such complex characters without having his characters discuss their own psychology outright.

From the first five minutes of the play, O’Neill shoves this down our throats, as the characters discuss the drug addiction, alcoholism, sickliness, miserliness, and depression without any nuance or banter. While that kind of talk is great on paper, it doesn’t reflect how people actually speak. The fact that McCarthy pointed this out is a sign of the fact that O’Neill’s appeal was not theatrical. While more literary-minded critics heralded Long Day’s Journey as perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a crumbling American family in terms of characterization, it’s a painfully unrealistic play to watch for anyone with sensitivity to dialogue.

It’s this type of approach that makes Collage Productions’s rendition so bad. Jeff Helgeson recites the lines of father James Tyrone like John Wayne in his worst movies. As the vagabond older brother Jamie, Jeff McVann seems more focused on remembering his lines—and indeed, he struggles with his lines throughout the production—than understanding his character’s contradictions. As the mentally unstable, morphine-addicted mother, Barbara Button is so unconfident about her lines that she seems afraid to say them. As a result, her voice is so quiet that it’s impossible to hear her.

Long Day’s Journey doesn’t require the actors to think about their characters—every detail of their psychology is in the dialogue. The play requires something much more complex from the directors and actors: They must not only maximize the impact of the dialogue, but also make the dialogue believable. By employing actors who are not only detached from the dialogue but who also don’t seem to care, the worst parts of the play are brought to the forefront, thus making the production impossible to sit through. In fact, the indifference of the actors is absurdly self-referential: Like the characters they depict, the actors are stuck in a position they hate with no concern for how they treat their circumstances or the people they affect (in this case, the audience).

There are other serious problems with the production as well. The set-up of the play’s set, despite being dramaturgically fascinating, is an acoustical nightmare. Lines that are spoken from five feet away seem 50 feet away, so that much of what little power the delivery has is lost. The other main problem is the score, written by Horath himself. In fact, from both the program and his own introduction, Horath seems to consider himself more of a composer than a director. This hurts the credibility of the play, especially when the music—played mostly in major keys—contrasts sharply with the tense arguments that are taking place on stage.

While Horath and his cast certainly took on a difficult job in choosing to produce Long Day’s Journey, they fell flat due to poor decision making and sloppy production. While it may be acceptable for the Tyrones to put on a play at this level, it is certainly not acceptable for a professional theater company in Chicago.