Review

Alfred Molina, Jane Kaczmarek and the slow burn of a 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'

America’s widespread opioid crisis has sadly made a crucial part of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” more relatable. 

Mary, the strung-out mother in the play’s alcoholic household, has once again succumbed to her morphine addiction. She lies, lashes out, makes trips to the pharmacy, denies what’s right under her nose, breaks down and becomes a ghost of herself in this classic study of family disintegration.

The idea of a respectable woman, who (through a combination of medical malpractice and untreated depression) becomes dependent on pain medication, is no longer a distant reality. If she doesn’t live next door, we’ve heard all about her problem on TV.  

The Geffen Playhouse’s nourishing, though still unsettled, revival of O’Neill’s supreme masterpiece doesn’t seek out points of contemporary relevance. But the company, led by Alfred Molina as James Tyrone and Jane Kaczmarek as Mary, tries to rediscover the work for our time.

Bestowed as a manuscript to his wife on their anniversary in 1941 but only first produced in 1956, three years after the author’s death, “Long Day’s Journey” represents an autobiographical exorcism, a confrontation with the demons that hurt O’Neill into playwriting.

In the dedication, O’Neill delivers “this play of old sorrows, written in tears and blood,” to his wife, Carlotta. The work was too raw, too painful, too potentially damaging to the family psyche for public presentation in his lifetime. A good deal of interest has naturally flown from the connections between the artist’s life and his work.

Director Jeanie Hackett doesn’t banish O’Neill as a figure from the stage. (His image is projected during scene breaks.) But she and her actors are more intent on understanding the pathological family dynamics from the universal perspective of tragedy. Biography, as it should be, is the beginning rather than the end of their exploration.   

The house, conjured on stage by scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, situates us in a stylized facsimile of the Connecticut house where O’Neill spent summers with his family as a youth. But the production, set (as written) in the summer of 1912, isn’t obsessed with sepia-tinged detail. 

The Tyrones no longer seem like thinly veiled surrogates of the O’Neills. (A few of them would have a hard time passing for Irish American.) There are dissonances between the play and the players, but Hackett’s somewhat askew casting forces us to see the work as a tragedy not just of a particular family but of family life itself. In O’Neill’s dark domestic vision, love is limited in its power to heal the wounds it invariably inflicts.  

Kaczmarek’s sturdy persona doesn’t lend itself to the kind of neurasthenic flutter that earned both Vanessa Redgrave and Jessica Lange Tony Awards for their turns as Mary. Kaczmarek’s nervousness is less diaphanous, more earthbound. Rarely has Mary’s Midwestern background seemed so pronounced.

Kaczmarek has trouble finding the character in the play’s first half. The actress (an accomplished stage veteran known for her TV role on “Malcolm in the Middle”) signals Mary’s condition more than she embodies it.  False notes abound. O’Neill’s occasionally thudding dialogue can sound canned in Kaczmarek’s mouth. But the performance gains power after intermission when Mary’s drug-clouded psyche unravels along with her bundled-up hair.

Molina, a marvelous classical actor who made a memorable Lopakhin in the 2006 Mark Taper Forum production of “The Cherry Orchard,” gives us a carefully measured James Tyrone. Molina avoids the trap that lesser talents have fallen into. Tempting as it might be to overdo the hamminess of this Shakespeare-quoting patriarch who has squandered his artistic gifts for comfortable income in the commercial theater, Molina preserves the character’s tattered dignity.

Like everyone in the play, James is torn between generosity and selfishness, forbearance and fury, love and disgust. Molina isn’t always convincing in a roaring key; there’s a rote aspect to some of the character’s tyrannical outbursts. But he infuses James’ silences with the grief, worry, compassion and guilt of a man who realizes that the center of his family cannot hold.

If Colin Woodell, who plays Edmund, the tubercular son with a poet’s suicidal sensibility, makes the deepest impression, it’s not because the character is the most developed or interesting. A portrait of the playwright as a young dissolute man, Edmund is the fragile observer of the inferno engulfing his family. As sweet as he is passive, he seems willing to offer himself up first to the flames.  

Woodell’s performance has a natural ease. Edmund’s cough is one you can imagine echoing down a sanitarium corridor. (The sound might have you reaching for hand sanitizer.) Although his character may feel adrift in the world, Woodell seems very much at home in the part. Even his vulnerable pre-Raphaelite appearance works. (The bookshelves in this New London house, per O’Neill’s stage directions, contain poetry by Swinburne, whose poem “A Leave-Taking” is heard during scene transitions.) 

The frail, almost sacrificial beauty of Woodell’s Edmund elicits a delicacy of feeling from his scene partners. All the principal actors seem to do their best work either with him or when arguing about his character’s condition. 

James (“Jamie”) Tyrone Jr., Edmund’s wild older brother, is the showier of the sibling roles, and Stephen Louis Grush attacks the part with the necessary bravado. Grush’s Jamie knows he’s a destructive influence that Edmund will have to shun to survive. But Jamie’s love always seems greater than his hate, making Edmund’s sadness all the more piercing.

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Perhaps to alleviate the relentless gloom, the production occasionally lapses into a sitcom rhythm. Angela Goethals, who plays the whiskey-slurping maid, Cathleen, bags easy laughs in her tipsy scene with high-as-a-kite Mary. (The Geffen audience at Wednesday’s opening seemed as desperate for a belly laugh as Mary was for her fix.)

Hackett’s staging, while commendably focused on the actors, can get clunky. Minor missteps — the sound of Mary rummaging upstairs in the attic, the flash of lights for emotional flourishes — call undue attention to the artifice of what we’re experiencing.

The scene that lingers is the one in which Edmund tells his father of his moment of transcendence at sea, when he felt at one with creation. Woodell communicates Edmund’s memory with a rapturous melancholy. But it’s the way Molina listens — a father taking in the spirit of his badly ill boy — that’s so heartrending.

O’Neill, staring into the abyss of his own photo album, plunged into the paradox of family relationships, the push and pull of these untenable, inescapable, irreplaceable bonds. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a harrowing and often grueling journey into the elusive myth of home, the broken promise that hope keeps eternally alive. This Geffen revival, while patchy in places, reminds us why actors and audiences keep returning to O’Neill’s haunted house.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions)

Tickets: $32-$90 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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