Reviewed by George Basler
The ancient Greeks believed tragedy should evoke a catharsis of pity and terror. That’s certainly the case with a powerful production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night that opened this past weekend(Feb. 8-10) at KNOW Theatre in downtown Binghamton.
The magnificent play focuses on loss: loss of health, loss of self-respect and, most devastating of all, loss of hope as O’Neill’s characters live though a day that begins in the sunshine and ends in the darkness of deep despair. No wonder the director Richard Eyre has called the work “the saddest play ever written.”
Without exception, the KNOW cast superbly captures the shifting emotional tones of the play as the characters move between illusion and reality, hate and love, and recriminations and forgiveness.
The play is semi-autobiographical, based on O’Neill’s own family. The playwright wrote it, in part, to confront his own painful memories and emotional demons. The work is a long and complex one, but the clarity and skill of O’Neill’s writing makes it readily accessible and emotionally compelling throughout.
The central characters are the morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone (Dori May Ganisin) and her husband, James Tyrone (Bernie Sheredy), a once promising actor who has squandered his talent playing second-rate melodramas.
The two other main characters are James Jr. (Zachary Chastain), their older son, a wastrel who spends his life mired in alcohol and debauchery, and Edmund (Joshua Sedelmeyer), their poetic, but emotionally damaged, younger son (a stand-in for O’Neill himself).
On one level, the play is about how the family copes with Mary’s morphine addiction. But what makes Long Day’s Journey into Night a great work is that it’s about so much more. All the characters possess flaws that have scarred them in deep, incurable ways. During the play, they confess their “sins” (O’Neill’s Roman Catholic background comes into play here) but seem incapable of changing. As such, the play is a wrenching portrait of a family careening toward destruction in an unforgiving world. There is no salvation. All the characters can do is seek absolution.
Ganisin does a masterful job depicting Mary’s descent into a morphine-induced fog. As the character veers between self-delusion and self-hatred. Ganisin makes the shifting emotions painfully real. She is most effective in playing the character’s anger as well as her loneliness. In her hands, Mary is a victimizer as much as a victim as she dreamily recalls her younger days while, at the same time, lacerating herself as a sentimental fool.
As James Sr., Sheredy seems to visibly age as the play progresses from day to night. His joshing breeziness at the start is replaced by a shuffling walk and vacant stare at the end as the character lives through his own personal hell of regret and guilt.
It’s a brilliant piece of acting. The character, on one level, is deeply unsympathetic. His cheapness when it comes to money is the main reason Mary became addicted to morphine in the first place. But Sheredy makes the character understandable, and worthy of pity, especially in a wrenching monologue in which Tyrone reflects on how his poverty-stricken youth blighted his life and how the lure of easy money destroyed his acting talent.
Chastain and Sedelmeyer are excellent as the two sons. Chastain plays the self-destructive Jamie with a perfect combination of unpleasant sarcasm, surface charm and deep self-loathing. He never overacts the character’s drunken moments. Instead, he skillfully underplays the character’s emotional turmoil until it comes tumbling out in a scalding monologue in which he warns his younger brother not to follow his lead. The moment is devastating.
Sedelmeyer, while a bit overwrought in early scenes, is also first-rate as Edmund. He effectively shows the character’s suffering, both physical and mental, in a painfully real fashion. One of his standout moments is Edmund’s long monologue that encompasses the playwright’s bleak vision of life and concludes with the words, “I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.” Sedelmeyer plays it extremely well.
Director Tim Gleason deserves credit for drawing out these performances and effectively pacing the action.
The fifth person in the play, Katelyn Rundell, also deserves notice. Her part as a family maid is a small one that is not central to the action, but Rundell makes the most of it. She provides some humorous moments and is totally convincing in the role.
The set and lighting by Pat Morrissey and Joe Brofcak are professionally done. Santino DeAngelo has provided some elegiac music that effectively sets the mood for the production.
Watching the highly-skilled five-member cast successfully scale the heights of the Mt. Everest of American drama was a genuinely absorbing experience. KNOW Theatre deserves credit for taking it on.
IF YOU GO: Long Day’s Journey into Night will run weekends through Feb. 24 at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St., Binghamton. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 (seniors, $18; students, $15). A special pay-what-you-can performance will be held at 7:30 p.m. this Thursday (Feb. 14).
For more information and tickets, call 724-4341 or go to www.knowtheatre.org.