It comes as no surprise that Eugene O’Neill wanted his most dramatically searing, magnificently crafted—the extensive stage directions (giving director Miles Potter little more to do than to carry them out: he did!), being the strongest “character” of the lot—largely autobiographical play to remain unpublished and unproduced.
Ironically, purposely, his wife Carlotta chose to ignore her spouse’s wishes after his passing (so like the play itself) and allow the world to see, hear and feel for itself the “true American tragedy.”
Those who have ever experienced the pain of a dysfunctional family, fuelled by various addictions, dashed hopes and life-threatening illness (which is likely everyone on the planet at one time or another), will be drawn like a moth to a flame in this metaphorically rich descent into madness.
Throughout the one-day journey, the summer home in Connecticut is surrounded on the outside and immersed on the inside with the twin types of fog: real and cultivated, respectively.
Enduring rather than living within its shoddy walls are the Tyrones: Mama, Papa and two sons (along with an unseen cook and wisecracking maid—with a drop or two in her own veins, Cathleen: Amy Keating adds much-needed comic relief in the small but important part).
Mary (Seana McKenna delivering one of her finest performances ever, which really is saying a lot), recently back to the family home following yet another attempt in a sanatorium to unhook her from morphine, is soon back to her long stints in the guest room—shooting up as a means to drown out the misery of all that surrounds her.
She had two dreams in her “happy” days: “To be a nun, that was the more beautiful one. To become a concert pianist, that was the other.”
When neither of those materialized and her second son, Eugene—no coincidences here— died (“due to my neglect”), then the siren call of hypodermic needles could not be ignored. Or as she put it, “It kills the pain. You go back until—at last—you are beyond [JWR emphasis] its reach. Only the past when you were happy is real.”
The patriarch, James (a gritty, insightful outing from veteran Scott Wentworth), a distinguished actor who sold his artistic soul for a play (The Count of Monte Cristo) that guaranteed riches but damned his career, then the self-proclaimed miser (the light bulb bits speak volumes), wrestles with his kin in the only way a “real” Irishman can: unending draughts of whiskey. With copious amounts in his system daily, little wonder these words can escape his tired lips: “You’d think the only happy days she’s ever known were in her father’s home, or at the Convent, praying and playing the piano.”
Eldest son Jamie (Gordon Miller deftly keeping the playwright’s plot points moving forward, then rendering one of the finest over-the-top drunk scenes ever) lives for purloined whiskey and fat whores. He has learned many lessons from his struggling parents: most of them not good ones. But once the booze has loosened his tongue, he has no problem spitting out lines that will get him a reprimand at best, or a punch in the face at worst: “Then who are you blaming [for Mary’s addiction]? Edmund, for being born?” [Mary started using after a local doctor recommended morphine, following a difficult birth and was unable to stop.]
Younger son, Edmund (personifying the playwright’s life, Charlie Gallant carefully builds this, literally, poetic characterization, deftly waiting for the late innings to turn on the inwardly raging sluices) is a most fragile young man whose “summer cold” is more likely the same sort of consumption that killed Mary’s father. Gallant’s handling of the role—with much-appreciated understatement—only serves to add weight to his frequent literary quotations:
Hunted have pleasures of their own to give,
The vulgar herd can never understand.”
- Charles Baudelaire
By this Journey’s end, the whiskey bottles are empty, Mary’s desire to leave the present world and savour the past is complete, leaving only the audience to decide whether to struggle—or not—with their own familial demons or carry on—as most do—with a willful blindness which suits them to a T till their own sordid flesh rots in the grave. JWR