The Tyrones. They could be any family. But they’re not. They’re the family at the heart of Eugene O’Neill’s classic stage play Long Day’s Journey into Night. Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s production has been called “startlingly compassionate… beautifully realized” (Four Stars – Time Out Chicago), it’s Reader Recommended and Jeff Recommended.
It’s a substantial piece of theatre – a little over three hours of stage time – and a challenging show, full of squabbles and conflict and a family held together by their shared ruin – as well as their sadly weathered but very real love. How does the cast of four principles remain at the top of form, putting all they have into O’Neill’s charges and retreats? “Well it’s a bit like running a marathon,” admits veteran actor Caroline Latta (Mary Tyrone). “You have to pace yourself. When the performance works you are completely drained!”
This is the second time around for Latta in the role. She also played Mary Tyrone as a college student decades ago. “It’s such an amazing gift to be able to return to this play after all these years. It gives me a perspective on the play I don’t think I would have found otherwise.”
It’s a first time experience for Kevin Kenneally (James Tyrone, Sr.). In playing the epic role of the family patriarch, he focuses on the all-important passion of desire: “I keep focused on what I want from the other characters. I have to respond to the effects of what they want from me. That’s what the rehearsal process is about: digging through your relationship to others and their thought/feelings/actions towards you.”
Bryan Breau (Edmund Tyrone) concurs, “All I can really do is try to stay focused and in the right mindset. Don’t get distracted, don’t goof around…much. But you have to keep your sense of humor and even with a play this serious; you have to find the fun.” He and Eric Damon Smith (Jamie Tyrone) do manage to mine the script for more laughs than one would expect in a play of this depth.
However, the physical demands of his uncanny portrayal a man diagnosed with consumption does drain Breau. He sputters his lines between coughing and appears at times on the verge of collapse. “Most of the time (an actor’s work) tends to be outside various comfort zones,” he admits. Ironically, appearing sickly on stage demands much of Breau’s physical athleticism.
Eric Damon Smith plays the role of the older, aimless drunkard brother Jamie Tyrone. After intermission Smith spends over an hour off-stage only to return with an energetic ferocity in a grueling and devastating scene admitting his character’s vehemence towards his brother. The time off-stage presents certain challenges emotionally and physically. “Being off-stage for such a long period of time it’s difficult to maintain Jamie’s arc. Stepping out of the character is essential for an actor’s sanity but finding a way to engage back into the play after such a long break is difficult. With the fight choreography it’s important to stretch before and after the show. Honestly, it’s hard and I’m still working on it,” Smith says.
Much of rehearsal was done in large chunks, so the actors always had an idea of the play as a whole. Breau admits to an inherent frustration with any classic play but Smith offers: “I actually do a lot of classical theatre and feel really comfortable in it. I do however feel that you can’t let your reverence for a piece stifle finding a way to make it urgent. Frankly it’s a desperate and daunting script, but once you come to grips with it you can finally truly work on it. It’s what O’Neill wanted. We see it as a great piece of drama, but for O’Neill it was an exorcism of his demons. If we approach seminal pieces of drama as ‘scripture’ we can’t breathe new life into them.”
Although the story follows four volatile characters on a painful day, the goal of the script is to illuminate and to entertain. Even fifty years after its Pulitzer-winning debut, the play still has the power to seduce. As Latta says, “Life itself has shown me, over the past forty years, how dreams can sometimes be shattered, but there is always hope for change.”
Despite the grief the characters experience, the cast unanimously agrees that this is a special experience – for them and the audience. The storefront size of Polarity’s theatre, where viewers are placed inside the front room of the Tyrone’s summer home is, literally, like watching a tornado from the eye of the storm. Susan Padveen’s staging allows for the play to be intimately effecting, as can be noted by the rapt attention of the audience shown night after night.
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Long Day’s Journey into Night is directed by Susan Padveen and features Caroline Latta, Kevin Kenneally, Bryan Breau, Eric Damon Smith and Anne Sears. The final three performances take place at the Polarity Ensemble Theatre in the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell, Chicago, IL, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 3:00pm, December 3 – 5. (Please note the time change for the final Sunday). $19 general admission. Tickets can be purchased in online through Brown Paper Tickets by calling 1-800-838-3006.