Arguably Eugene O’Neill’s most personal and autobiographical (more his brother Jamie than himself, yet everything is “familialy” linked) play has erupted for the first time at the Shaw Festival, only begging the question: What took so long?
Played in the intimate confines of the Court House Theatre, lovingly crafted by director Joseph Ziegler and painstakingly set and costumed under designer Christina Poddubiuk’s unerring eye, this production was destined to succeed before any actor had been cast.
The magnificent script—a perfect balance of outrageous humour that brilliantly balances/foils the extra-dark drama to come—seems, on the surface, miles away from the wit and wisdom of George Bernard Shaw (the Festival’s “playtriarch”)—but at the root of both is their unique understanding of human frailty and experience; only their methods differ.
As widower, Phil Hogan, Jim Mezon gives the performance of a lifetime—based on that outstanding achievement alone, there should never be a vacant seat until the production closes (after an audience-demanded extension). With the full range of emotions and variety of moods/personas required, Mezon carefully paces himself, working in and around his colleagues on this incredible journey with his last remaining child (one by one, Phil’s three sons ditched their whisky-swigging slave master and subsistence farming to seek their fortune elsewhere), Josie, towards love, forgiveness and understanding.
With the opening scene’s drama (last son Mike—Billy Lake, not yet secure in the brief but pivotal role—is preparing to make his freedom flight from the pig farm) and hilarious father/daughter banter that is stunningly, if momentarily quashed, Phil recalls his wife dying in childbirth of the pious young lad who has just escaped: “I’ve never set foot in a church since, and never will.” In a miracle of timing and tone, Mezon drew in the entire audience, revealing an unexpectedly tender side and deeply seated anger at the tragic loss, which no amount of alcohol could ever blur, much less erase. In a flash, the hijinks return, yet without that shared revelation little that follows makes sense.
During his frequent drunken outbursts, Mezon employs a compelling dynamic range and body language (shaking yourself sober will never be the same) that is interspersed with his wily, layered tricks, which are designed to fool all those around him and occasionally (and much to his chagrin) himself. Incessantly singing a single verse praising potatoes (“Oh the praties they grow small /Over here, over here”) sets the stage for a last-ditch scheme to help his shameless daughter find her first true love and foreshadow much bleaker verses to come.
Shaw newcomer Jenny Young has heroically taken on the role of Phil’s brash, brazen daughter. The key difficulty—and no fault of Young’s—is visual: “she is so oversize a woman that she is almost a freak,” writes O’Neill in his detailed description of the central character. Time and again in the script she is referred to as a cow; that any man could love her seems near-impossible and serves also to explain why she has had, apparently, so many lovers—but none for long. Young looks anything but an Amazon whose sheer bulk and strength ensures that any unwanted attention will be physically quashed in an instant. As such, the eye becomes confused with what is heard.
That significant problem aside, Young digs deep into Josie’s complex situation and come up with an admirable result. Taking Mezon’s lead, they roar through their scenes with copious amounts of tough love, indignation and illumination in a manner that simultaneously keeps the pace flowing and convincingly underscores the troubled playwright’s searing examination of his/our demons within.
David Jansen begins his portrayal of James Tyrone, Jr. (Jim) almost too coolly and fresh. For a career alcoholic, the telltale signs don’t appear until it’s abundantly clear that his best friend is bourbon. But when unleashed (suffering the “heebie geebies” while attempting to light a cigarette was pathetically spectacular; attempting to rape a memory while holding the only woman he dared love was both eerie and ugly), Jansen’s performance compellingly grips the audience and his co-actors, flooding the room with emotion as, finally ready, his constant haunting (“And baby’s cries can’t waken her /In the baggage coach ahead”) has been exorcised: he can prepare to die in addled peace. JWR