Like life, there's nothing particularly tidy or precise about Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's staging of Eugene O'Neill's vast masterpiece, Long Day's Journey Into Night. Also like life -- and just like the Pulitzer winning 1941 script -- the production has its lurches, its wrong turns and dead ends, its emotional violence and occasional lilting innocence, its fits of scattered energy and shattering insight.
It is, in short, a great, heaving, harrowing behemoth of a play. At more than three hours, CSC's mounting, directed by Brian Isaac Phillips, rises to its challenge -- maybe not the most luminous reading the script has ever seen, but worthy of notice.
O'Neill, arguably America's greatest playwright, had already won the Nobel Prize and was sickening toward the end of his long career when he ripped this script out of the anguish that had passed for life, decades earlier, inside his dysfunctional family.
The Tyrones of the play are, sin by sin, the all-too-real O'Neills of New London, Conn. Only the names -- none of their itches for self-destruction -- were changed.
Father James Tyrone (Joneal Joplin) is the vain, miserly actor who neglects and bullies his sons and wife, the man who traded off a significant talent and a gripping fear of destitution for the financial guarantees of cheap-jack melodrama. Elder son Jamie Tyrone (Matt Johnson) has been schooled toward failure and bullied into it by his father. He responds with death-grip devotion to alcohol and whores.
Younger son Edmund Tyrone (Rob Jansen) is the playwright's unblinkered self-portrait. At the time of the play, he's beginning a bout with tuberculosis, suffers flights of self-disgust, shirks no fights and picks some. Mary Tyrone (Dale Hodges) is tottering toward death, lost in drug addiction that began in medical quackery and blossomed in the friendless homelessness forced on her by her husband's ceaseless touring and emotional neglect. She hates the New London house but hates cheap hotel rooms even more.
Sadly, all these Tyrones, like the O'Neills, had once loved each other and, in the production's most telling moments, attempt to recapture shreds of their affection.
Untidy as it is, there's still an underpinning structure in this journey toward oblivion. Act I is mesmerizing, both the script and the performances. Tension mounts. Act II is brief and disturbing, ripping open old wounds, building toward Act III wherein drunkenness opens old avenues of communication and some, if not all, masks are ripped away in a quartet of self-pitying, self-deluding soliloquies. If, as the Greeks decree, tragedy proceeds from a hero's tragic flaw, then these hero-sized Tyrones are all each other's flaw.
Joplin gives the most varied, diverse, subtly unified performance I've seen him deliver. Johnson and Jansen demand and then fully earn sympathy and respect, both for the wounded souls they portray and the skill of their portrayal. Hodges gives Mary strength and a vivacity that heightens her tragedy as she dissolves into madness. Strong performances all.
The play is, as the title states, a single day's events. O'Neill has only finished Act I when he described his concept in a letter to journalist George Jean Nathan: "At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding and yet not understanding at all, forgetting but still doomed never to be able to forget."
LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through May 25. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.