Bridge Street Ascends the Summit of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”
“It’s the Mount Everest of American drama. Arguably the greatest play written by a native dramatist in the 20th Century.” So begins Bridge Street Theatre’s press release for their audacious production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Nobel Prize winner, Eugene O’Neill. Director John Sowle and his husband, actor Steven Patterson who is playing James Tyrone, describe in the press release for this play, which won a fourth Pulitzer Prize for O’Neill posthumously, how they pulled out all the stops for this production.
O’Neill wrote this masterwork about his family (here called The Tyrones) in their summer home in New London in 1912 and stipulated because of its personal nature that it should not be done on stage until 50 years after his death. His widow Carlotta waited only three years when she gave permission to Jose Quintero to stage it in 1956. Plays happen on the day when momentous events occur and what happens over the course of this August day is Edmund (Christopher Joel Onken) the youngest son is given the diagnosis of tuberculosis and the matriarch, Mary (Roxanne Fay), revives her morphine addiction.
It is a brutal, pitiless portrait of an American family where all confront each other with guilt, recriminations and accusations while trying desperately to hold on to compassion and love. Mary blames her morphine addiction on her shoddy treatment while giving birth to Edmund, while Jamie (Christopher Patrick Mullen) blames his father’s miserliness in hiring subpar doctors for both Mary’s condition and Edmund’s treatment when he chooses a state sanitorium for the young man. Mary blames Jamie for infecting their second child with measles, killing him. All of which takes place in this summer home which the actor is not altogether comfortable in. His wife accuses him of hiring lower class help (embodied by Cathleen, a delightful performance by Taylor Congdon as their second) because they are only there for the summer. Congdon has a heart quickening and hilarious attempted theft of the third shot of whiskey.
The play is charged with electricity from the opening moments and one wonders how they are going to maintain this for three hours and yet they do. The adult children, Jamie and Edmund’s secret, urgent, whispered suppositions about what their mother is doing up in the spare room implicate the audience in the lies and false front presented to the world and each other. Coming out of the pandemic and the previous administration, it’s remarkable how many times lies and liars are mentioned in the play. The boys return for lunch and water down the old man’s whiskey so he doesn’t suspect they have tippled before he arrived. They head out for Edmund’s 4 o’clock appointment with Doc Hardy where they will get the bad news while their mother slips further and further into the fog of dementia. Roxanne Fay’s hairpin turns from solicitousness or confession to denial are a special effect that would not be out of place in a horror film.
In the third act, Edmund has long scenes in the living room with his father and brother where they all, at the point of exhaustion, thrillingly reveal themselves. The cast has been pitch-perfect all night long and has effectively set us up for the revelations. There is no favorite of mine in this cast as each individual had their own shimmering moment of vitality and beauty. Steven Patterson has had a hair-trigger temper over the course of the day and it’s wonderful to see him relax, smile and bask in a complement that Edwin Booth had paid his Othello when he was a 27-year-old actor. Christopher Joel Onken responds in kind with his recital of Baudelaire and testament to his attachment to the sea. Onken has a terrific likeness to O’Neill with his sunken cheeks and full mustache. Both men talk heartbreakingly of distant days when they felt most alive. It’s an astonishing scene.
Jamie enters hells a poppin’ from his evening at the local cat house where he took pity on the largest whore, Fat Vi. Mullen is so quick, vituperative and intense that he can make you bark with laughter and catch yourself, saddened for the wasted potential that you are witnessing in this alcoholic’s rant. He is frighteningly good.
Finally, Roxanne Fay makes the last entrance of the play and makes every second count. After all we’ve sat through, we hold our breath as she navigates from one room to the other. The close quarters of the Priscilla Stage have never been put to better nor more beautiful use. The final tableau was inspired.
The set design by Marc Swanson is a beautiful compact cottage front room, dressed and painted all in white with swaths of white. fabric draped from the walls and tables. There are many entrances and rooms revealed, especially in the penultimate scene. The lighting, designed by Nick Hawrylko, is another character in the play as it takes place over the course of a day from post-breakfast to midnight and we see sun streaming in at the top of the show and a battle for how many bulbs can be lit in the dead of night. The beautiful costumes by Michelle Rogers are in an off-white and sand color palette reminding one of the beaches outside and the ever-present fog. There’s also a terrific original score of piano music (Mary Tyrone’s instrument) composed by Justin Morell which is very effective and quite beautiful.
Bridge Street Theatre has one of their most outstanding productions (and that’s saying something!) with this galvanic tale of freedom, responsibility, and honesty. Like Edmund and James Tyrone in their midnight confab, you may well be talking about this production for years to come as a time when you felt most alive in a theater.
Through 11/21 @ Bridge Street Theatre