Fame, addiction, fatality: "Long Day's Journey Into Night," now on view at the Theatricum Botanicum, posits the American family as crime scene, echoing back to the Greeks but as modern as Britney's latest rehab lapse. A half-century since its Broadway premiere, Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece still feels like a dare: Just try to look away from the carnage.
"Journey" takes place on a single August day in 1912, at the summer residence of celebrated actor James Tyrone (William Dennis Hunt), his fragile, morphine-dependent wife (Ellen Geer) and their sons, Jamie (Jim LeFave) and Edmund (Aaron Hendry). As they wait for a diagnosis of Edmund's persistent cough, they drink, deny and tear one another to pieces. O'Neill may have been born into a theatrical clan, but his insight that family is the ultimate performance site -- like Tyrone père, we're trapped in the same role for a lifetime -- gives "Journey" its eerie ability to crawl under anyone's skin.
But whatever the latest Tyrone sin or crisis -- James' terror of the poorhouse, which has made him a miser; Jamie's seething resentment of his younger brother; Edmund's fatal disregard for his health -- what they all fear most is Mary's dissolution. She is their lodestar; when the drug takes her away from them, chaos is come again.
Coquette, innocent, seer, banshee: Geer's Mary dominates the show. Drifting around the stage in a fluttering violet dress (courtesy of designer Charlotte Kruse), Geer gives an elegant, fearless performance, coaxing us closer to the play's bleak core. She instinctively understands O'Neill's crazy Irish lurches from curses to lyricism and grounds his poetry every time it veers toward melodrama. Her fluidity plays well against the charismatic, stentorian Hunt, and you believe in the Tyrones' hard-lived 35-year-old marriage, a series of cheap hotel rooms and quack doctors. (One guesses she also knows a thing or two about the perils of a theatrical family.) When Geer is onstage, you never forget the stakes.
LeFave comes into his own when Jamie's on a drunken tear but feels a little stiff in his sober moments. Aaron Hendry plays nicely against his character's melancholia -- it's a relief to see an Edmund who doesn't always take himself too seriously -- although the young actor needs time to settle into his big speeches (who wouldn't?). Their scene together late in the play, when Jamie relates an absurd visit to the local whorehouse, is one of the evening's strongest (and funniest).
There were a number of line flubs on opening night, but somehow that didn't stop director Heidi Helen Davis' production from accumulating a heart-rending power. And as always, Theatricum Botanicum's outdoor setting casts its spell. "This is not a home," laments Mary, and the audience, seeing the impenetrable black of the Topanga forest behind the performers, shivers in agreement. Darkness of all kinds surrounds the Tyrones, helplessly aware they are forever unsheltered.