Pamela Payton-Wright and Brian Dennehyin Long Day?s Journey Into Night
(Photo: Eric Y. Exit)
Pamela Payton-Wright and Brian Dennehy
in Long Day?s Journey Into Night
(Photo: Eric Y. Exit)
Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, has teamed up once again with Brian Dennehy, his frequent artistic collaborator. In 1999, Goodman's Death of a Salesman transferred easily to Broadway, where both artists won Tony Awards. Their project this time is another high mountain of American drama, Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical Long Day's Journey Into Night, running in Chicago through April 6 and already scheduled for remounting in New York next season.

In this stand-in for O'Neill's own family, Dennehy plays the patriarch James Tyrone, an aging matinee idol; Pamela Payton-Wright is his morphine-addicted wife, Mary; and Chicago actors Steve Pickering and David Cromer are their elder and younger sons, Jamie and Edmund (the character representing O'Neill himself). Susan Bennett completes the troupe as the spunky Irish maid. This is a production informed throughout with keen intelligence on the part of the director and his performers. Falls has perfectly paired off the four Tyrones physically: Pickering looks like a younger version of the robust Dennehy, while Cromer is a pale, thin match for Payton-Wright. The character match becomes complete when Mary and then Edmund describe their love of the fog that shields them from life.

This Journey is filled with fine, telling details and exceptional moments. There's Edmund in the last act, barefoot and open-shirted, as he would have appeared as a merchant seamen--an experience that figures prominently in the play, as it did in O'Neill's life. There's Dennehy's Tyrone, throwing his bulk into a heroic, statue-like pose merely to unscrew a light bulb. And there are Payton-Wright's whip-quick, unexpectedly ferocious self-defenses and denials in the early scenes.

The physical details of the production also make a strong statement. Scenic designer Santo Loquasto gives us a lengthwise cross-section of the Monte Cristo Cottage: from stage left to stage right run the front porch, the hallway, and the parlor, all completely visible, with the dining room glimpsed through windows at extreme stage right. One feels the claustrophobia of the small, two-story house and how the four tortured Tyrones simply cannot get away from each other in this dark hive; clearly, the desperate isolation each feels is emotional. As if to overcome it, they constantly touch, hold, hug, and pat each other in the vicious circle of love, hate, resentment, and forgiveness that is their daily life.

And yet, at the final curtain, I did not feel the devastating emotional impact I have felt at other productions of this play. Somehow, the Goodman version is not equal to the sum of its parts. It's difficult to pinpoint what's missing and it may be merely a matter of time for the performers to hit their stride, but there are some specific problems. For example, the dominant performance is that of Payton-Wright as Mary, her warmth turning to chatter turning to icy withdrawal as the play proceeds from breakfast time to midnight on one terrible summer day. But she's absent through most of the last act, which consists largely of a late-night drinking bout among the men; and she's missed, as she has been made the focus up to that point.

Also, in the single big misstep in Falls' direction, he has the drunk Jamie play Act Four at a brutally high volume. This comes in contrast to the poignant exchanges between old Tyrone and Edmund earlier in the same act. The size and volume of Pickering's portrayal is inconsistent and off-putting, although (to his credit) he retains the dead-on essence of Jamie's deeply conflicted character. Poor actors sometimes use volume as a substitute for force or intensity, but Pickering has the force and doesn't need the volume.

The brothers, grim: David Cromer and Steve Pickering
(Photo: Eric Y. Exit)
The brothers, grim: David Cromer and Steve Pickering
(Photo: Eric Y. Exit)
Dennehy and Cromer shine brightly in this climactic act, with Dennehy particularly good in his sadly matter-of-fact recounting of his early life. Still, he almost seems too old for the part, with his hair shaggy white hair and a white beard to match. Now stooped in posture (or allowing himself to stoop), this bulldog of a man seems older than the 65-or-so that Tyrone is meant to be, making it difficult to believe he's still a working actor or the handsome figure the maid insists he is. Cromer's Edmund, fighting tuberculosis with exceptionally violent coughing fits, is a strong-willed seeker as well, though Edmund is not yet sure what he seeks. The mother-son bond between Mary and Edmund is quite strongly established, as it must be if Long Day's Journey is to succeed.

Even Loquasto's work is just a wee bit out of joint; soaring above the cross section of the house are stage-filling walls of what appears to be barn siding. These walls are off-putting for they seem to have no connection to the Monte Cristo Cottage, serving only to fill space. Fortunately, Brian MacDevitt's lighting wisely leaves the upper reaches of the stage in shadow most of the time.

This complex and difficult play represents one of the great challenges of American dramatic literature. Its enormous length can make it an endurance contest for audiences, although the rewards are outstanding when it's well done. The Goodman Theatre production certainly is well done, even if the excellent cast still is striving to achieve all that O'Neill asks of them in a masterwork that was, as he himself said, "written in tears and blood." I embrace the opportunity to see this luminous play as staged and performed by a director and a cast who emphatically understand that Long Day's Journey Into Night is about the capacity to love, to accept, to forgive.