Anyone attempting to contain the tempestuous emotions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in a 149-seat theater needs both enigmatic performers and a clear directorial purpose. Charlotte Moore’s static revival of the classic (and lengthy) Eugene O’Neill play has the acting chops in the green room, but not the riveting concept on the stage. Despite the casting of the redoubtable Frances Sternhagen and Brian Murray as two of American literature’s most dysfunctional parental units, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s inconsistent effort needs a clearer raison d’etre if it is to rise above the category of solid but prosaic Off Broadway revival.
Opening just a few days after Lincoln Center Theater’s far superior revival of “Ah, Wilderness!” (same scribe, very different mood), this production serves as a useful reminder of how deftly O’Neill separated fantasy from fact in his work. “Ah, Wilderness!,” in which everyone is genial, warm and likable, represents his fantasy of family life. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in which everyone is rendered dysfunctional by some combination of drugs, booze and broken dreams, is a version of harsh autobiographical reality.
While many previous revivals have emphasized the epic grandiosity of the emotions on display, Moore’s production is far more muted. The main strength of that approach is a certain accessibility. Instead of occupying some edge of the lunatic fringe, the Tyrones are believable and humanistic here.
But O’Neill’s creations are inherently passionate creatures. So although Sternhagen approaches Mary with the kind of attention to craft you would expect from such an experienced performer, her bottled-up character seems at odds with the necessary emotive outpourings of such a troubled woman. Similarly, while Murray’s Tyrone is appropriately consumed by regret, it’s tough to believe that this understated fellow was ever a grand thespian in the old style, trapped into belting out live melodrama night after night.
As the two boys suffering through such a lack of love, Paul Carlin (Sternhagen’s real-life son, as Jamie) and Paul McGrane (as Edmund) capture the balance between honesty and thematic magnitude rather more easily, but then Carlin’s broad drunk turn still seems out of place in the dramatic universe created here.
Many of these issues could have been avoided if Moore had given the actors more to do. With the necessary physical openness, Sternhagen’s Mary would have been less a pitiable grandmother than a troubled woman wreaking havoc on her sons for the rest of their lives.
Akira Yoshimura contributes a serviceable setting that fits deftly into the Irish Rep’s small space. While competent, the other design credits contribute here to the feeling of a play that is never allowed to cut loose from what look to be director-imposed bonds. As a trip to Lincoln Center’s “Ah, Wilderness!” reveals, grand passion and honest realism do not have to be mutually incompatible.