A reimagined 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' for the COVID era

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A reimagined 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' for the COVID era
Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp in rehearsals for “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in New York, Jan. 15, 2022. Robert O’Hara’s staging of Eugene O’Neill’s classic confronts the play’s themes head on and brings them into 2022. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Juan A. Ramírez

NEW YORK, NY.- Of the time-honored classics of American theater, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is one that usually takes its own concept of time seriously. A four-act work based on the playwright’s own dysfunctional parents, it follows the disintegration of the Tyrone family — by disease, ego, addiction and codependency — through the course of a claustrophobic August day at their seaside home in Connecticut. Widely considered O’Neill’s masterpiece, it typically runs just under four hours.

Writer-director Robert O’Hara, a Tony nominee for his direction of “Slave Play,” is doing it in under two.

Presented without an intermission by Audible at the Minetta Lane Theatre, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” has reunited O’Hara with fellow “Slave Play” alums, actor Ato Blankson-Wood and designer Clint Ramos, for a shortened production that confronts the play’s themes head-on and brings them into 2022.

“There is so much velocity in the writing that it moves at a fast clip, and with so much richness,” O’Hara said after a rehearsal last week. “The family doesn’t get an intermission throughout this one long day, so it’s quite interesting to get to sit with them in real time.”

The decision to trim the material happened early and organically, O’Hara explained.

“Once you put the knife in, you’re just like, ‘Are we going to pretend that we’re not editing this?’ ” he quipped. It was then bolstered by his wariness of having people gather for too long, given the latest COVID-19 variant.

“For me, it feels like a COVID production of ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ built for right now,” he said. “We didn’t want to ask an audience to sit for four hours in a theater just because that’s the way it’s usually done. If anyone’s coming in looking for that experience, they should know that it’s not this.”

He began conceiving the production, now in previews and opening Tuesday, before the pandemic. Initially he was hesitant to tackle the play because of the demands placed upon producing classics.

“It’s difficult to get these big chestnuts if you’re going to do it off-Broadway,” he said, referring to the challenges of securing production rights. “You can ask, but someone’s usually holding them in order to bring them back in a big way.”

O’Hara credits actress Elizabeth Marvel, who portrays the morphine-addicted mother, Mary, as instrumental to getting the production off the ground.

“We started just talking about this play, but then the world made its urgency all the greater,” Marvel said. “I’ve seen probably 11 or 12 productions in my lifetime, and it’s always the same: in the same drawing room with billowing curtains, and with period corsets.

“But there’s absolutely no reason,” she continued, “it can’t be right here, right now. It very much speaks to this moment, when a lot of people are having to return home to their families, dealing with addiction and codependency during a crisis, while not being able to get out.”

In addition to contemporary allusions to the opioid crisis, reflecting Mary’s own addiction, the production is set amid the coronavirus pandemic. The youngest Tyrone son, Edmund (Blankson-Wood), afflicted by what is traditionally hinted to be tuberculosis, now wears a face mask. Projections at the beginning of the play display CDC announcements and news footage from the early days of the pandemic, including surreal revelations like the Bronx Zoo tiger testing positive for the virus.

“We wanted projections to be a dreamlike window into Mary’s psychological space, especially when she succumbs to her addiction,” Ramos said on a video call. “The visual landscape, through Yee Eun Nam’s projections, gets very dreamy and dense to directly represent that.”

Marvel’s husband, actor Bill Camp, plays the family’s patriarch, James.

He was cast as the eldest son, Jamie, in a 1996 production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The edited script, he said, “became about distilling the story’s actions rather than experiencing the longness of the situation.”

“The family’s desires and dysfunctions are streamlined in a way that is already in the writing; we just hit it really fast,” he added. “It’s in your face, just like everything that is happening is in our faces now, and we don’t have time to sit around and meander our way into those things; they’re immediate.”

Jason Bowen rounds out the Tyrone clan as Jamie: a colorblind casting choice (Bowen and Blankson-Wood are Black, Camp and Marvel are white) that O’Hara said is intentional, though not one he wanted to factor into the DNA of the production.

“I was never going to do this play with all white people; it wasn’t anything that I had to think about,” O’Hara said. “Elizabeth had mentioned Ato, being a fan of his, so we only held auditions for Jamie, and Jason killed it. There was no manufacturing of the cast’s racial dynamics for any reason other than wanting the best actors we could find.”

Bowen notes that the heft of the story’s themes, as written, override any possible racial interpretation the cast could have envisioned.

“It’s a play about a family as they navigate addiction, and that’s something that transcends any racial aspect that we could even attempt to investigate,” Bowen said. “The play’s not about that. Robert could’ve come in with some conceptual idea he wanted to introduce, but it’s still going to boil down to these relationships.”

Blankson-Wood, who was performing a return engagement of his Tony-nominated role in “Slave Play” while rehearsals for “Long Day’s Journey” took place during the day, said being able to act in a production that did not take his own race into account was “liberating.”

“The fact that I do not have to carry how I, as a Black person, fit into this family is just pure acting to me, because it focuses only on the imaginative truth of the work,” he said. “From an outsider’s perspective, I get the impulse to want to understand the racial dynamic, but that’s something I’m excited for the audience to do; that’s their job.”

O’Hara, who directed an audio production of another American classic, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” as part of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Audible season in 2020, will direct an audio presentation of the production once the Minetta Lane run closes Feb. 20.

He said Audible’s expansive reach helped in securing the rights to the radically altered production, which might have been denied to a regional theater.

“What’s amazing about this turn to streaming and digital is the democratization of theater, so more people will be able to access it,” Blankson-Wood said, “though I do feel pretty strongly about sitting in a dark room with other human beings. But, with an audio production like this, when you take all the scenery and stuff away, and there’s only talking and listening, it deepens the work.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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