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Theater Review:

"LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT" at Goodman Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Before the audience settles in for a nearly four-hour observation of the Tyrone family’s descent into irreparable delusion during Goodman Theatre’s revival of Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey into Night," they are consumed by the set. But rarely has scenic design appeared so colossal yet so claustrophobic. And within Santo Loquasto’s towering replica of the Tyrone’s ramshackle New England summer home – with its wood beams rising into a surreal infinity – a sepia heaviness chokes the life out of four individuals drowning in a cycle of blame, regret and tattered glory.

Central to the characters’ emotional decrepitude is the light which, for O’Neill, could be harsher than the blackness of night. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design takes on a life or, more accurately, a death of its own – emitting a stained glow, as brown and speckled as younger son Edmund’s consumptive lungs. Even Loquasto’s early 20th century costumes, with their layers of leaden-wool fabric, bury these unfulfilled souls in a suffocating shroud of mourning. Sound designer Richard Woodbury’s low groaning fog horn becomes the bell tolling for one family’s moral dissolution.

While Robert Falls’ eloquent production of O’Neill’s autobiographical epic (for which the playwright won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1956) does not boast an impeccably synchronized cast and sometimes sags under the weight of its dismal, whiskey-drenched subject matter, the visual and aural atmosphere speaks with its own poetic solemnity.

"Long Day’s Journey into Night" mirrors the dysfunctional environment of O’Neill’s own home life. Set in 1912, it takes place over the course of one interminable day during the Tyrone family’s summer break at its temporary home scattered with second-hand furniture and books. Patriarch James Tyrone – an Irish immigrant – rose from the depths of poverty to become a well-regarded classical stage actor. A notorious tightwad, he often opted to save money rather than seek the best care and accommodations for his torn-apart family.

At the center of the play is James’ "dope fiend" wife, Mary, who wanders around this lonely house like a ghost searching for the means to drown in a past even as her memories (especially the death of her second child) torment her every waking hour. She blames James for listening to a "quack doctor" after the birth of their son, Edmund. He gave her morphine for the pain, and she spent the rest of her life trying to overcome her addiction. This particular night, Mary’s addiction recurs.

By play’s end, she has drifted so far into the past, it has smothered her, along with her now-humbled and numb husband; oldest son Jamie – also a stage actor -- downspiraling into his own addiction for alcohol and prostitutes; and frail, bookish youngest son Edmund, who has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.

Audiences essentially witness one family’s plunge into mortifying hopelessness. Blame begets blame; and the past forever engulfs and swallows them whole.

Viewers will no doubt weary of the sheer density of O’Neill’s words and the repetitive nature of the play, which reflects the ongoing cycle of dysfunction and illness that plagues the Tyrone blood line. But one cannot deny that this is an earth-shattering drama written from the depths of O’Neill’s own demon-racked being.

Brian Dennehy turns in a sonorously measured – if not, sluggish, at times – performance as James. Steve Pickering masterfully balances Jamie’s insolence with pitiable regret; and David Cromer gives Edmund a sardonic edge. Susan Bennett delivers a spunky, albeit overly high-pitched, performance as their Irish maid Cathleen.

But this production belongs to the devastatingly real Pamela Payton-Wright as the pathetically paranoid Mary. She brought tears to my eyes with her fissured angelic voice. I physically felt her unraveling amid her prescient ramblings.

Inside that big old house, with its rafters rising to eternity, one American family shrinks from the unbearable anguish of its temporal regret.•

"Long Day’s Journey into Night" runs through April 6 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 312-443-3800 or log onto www.goodman-theatre.org.

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