Tolstoy said that "All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Whether or not his words reflect the true nature of family life can be argued. What is clear, however, is that no family ought to be as unhappy as the Tyrones in Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Long Day's Journey Into Night.
O'Neill wrote the semi-autobiographical work in 1940, partly as a gift to his wife and partly to show the world what his own early life was like. Because of its deeply personal nature (the playwright himself described it as "written in tears and blood"), O'Neill requested that the play be published posthumously, which meant that it was not revealed until his death in 1956. It has been performed countless times over the past half-century, and now graces the boards in a powerful and moving production directed by John DiDonna at Theatre Downtown.
The story is set in August 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrone family in Connecticut. Mary Tyrone (Peg O'Keef) the long-suffering wife of James (Tim Bass), and mother of Jamie (Roger Greco) and Edmund (Daniel Cooksley) is a morphine addict, continually struggling to come to terms with her lonely existence and in constant denial of her habit.
Elder brother Jamie is an alcoholic wastrel. At 35, he is still living off his parents, with no prospects for a successful future. Edmund (who represents the young O'Neill) has consumption and faces up to a year in a state-run sanitarium. Father James is a stingy and fearful man who traded in his early artistic promise for an easy buck and an unchallenging career. All three Tyrone men drink to excess.
Yet the play begins hopefully: The seemingly eternal fog that shrouds the coastal town has begun to lift. Mary has been sober for two months, and the family holds out hope that Edmund's coughing fits are only signs of a summer cold and not something worse. Before long, however, Mary slips back into her addiction, and Edmund's true condition becomes clear.
As the family members struggle to confront the painful reality of their lives, they constantly tear at old wounds, revisiting unresolved arguments they can neither fully forgive nor forget. Try as they might to live in the present, they are mired both in ancient recriminations against one another and in the sad self-loathing that accompanies their individual failures.
What makes Long Day's Journey Into Night such a powerful and resonant work, and not just a litany of accusations and regrets, is the strong love that all of the characters share even as they eviscerate each other with bitter denunciations. Hate and love are not mutually exclusive in O'Neill's world, nor in the lives of ordinary people. The excellent acting in Theatre Downtown's production manages to hold the audience's attention over the three-plus hours. It is a finely crafted edition of a great masterpiece, deserving of our admiration, respect and time.