Entertainment » Theatre

A ’Long Day’s Journey’ :: Scott Edmiston on O’Neill’s Seminal Play

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Apr 9, 2012

What are the challenges of staging a classic play like Eugene O’Neill’s "Long Day’s Journey Into Night"? Is there pressure to bring something new to a fresh production of an esteemed and familiar play? Does a director feel hemmed in by previous interpretations, elements of which an audience may have come to regard as necessary or canonical? What are the risks, and the rewards, of departure from the familiar executions of a familiar script, and when does a director, his cast, and his design team fare best by sticking to whatever is seen as being "conventional" for a given work?

For Scott Edmiston, a highly successful director of Boston area theater with a long list of sterling productions (not to mention awards and nominations) to his credit, the task of bringing O’Neill’s masterpiece to the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown for its April 1 - April 22 run posed just such questions.

Edmiston’s long history of critical and popular success on the Boston stage stretches across years and includes works such as "In the Next Room," "The History Boys," "The Light in the Piazza," and others. He is also Director of the Office of the Arts at Brandeis University where he has taught "Long Day’s Journey" since 2005.

Edmiston, who has won numerous accolades for direction, came up with his own bold answer to the challenges posed by O’Neill’s most famous opus.

"There’s enormous pressure, but it wasn’t so much that I felt I wanted to do something new with it; I just wanted to make sure that I was fulfilling the greatness of it," Edmiston told EDGE during a recent telephone interview. "That was the question. I think the actors felt that; I think the designers felt that. Could we rise to the occasion? Could we serve the play fully?

"Eugene O’Neill, in writing the play, really exposed himself in a kind of uncompromising and devastating way," Edmiston continued. "It’s an act of risk and sacrifice, and so as his collaborators, in theory, we wanted to rise to the occasion and make sure that we were bringing that same level of commitment.

"But I was freed up a little in that right before rehearsal I thought, ’Well, what if I just treat this as a new play? What if I just imagine that no one has ever done it before?’ " the director recounted. "That allowed some to be free of the baggage and respond to the material in a very specific moment-to-moment way with my collaborators in the room, instead of carrying the heavy mantle of The Great American Play."

An American classic

Which this is; indeed, Edmiston has said he ranks "A Long Day’s Journey Into Night" as one of the four great American plays, alongside Thornton Wilder’s "Our Town," Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman," and Tennessee Williams’ "A Streetcar Named Desire."

Edmiston would know a thing or two about Tennessee Williams, having unearthed and produced five lost Williams’ plays, to critical acclaim, with the 2006 premiere of "Five by Tenn," a production that reaped multiple awards.

With "Long Day’s Journey," Edmiston directs a cast that includes Karen MacDonald as Mary, the mother of the Tyrone family whose drug addiction is a source of shame and concern, and Will Lyman as the family’s patriarch, James, an actor who has made a success of a single character but fears that in doing so he has sacrificed the non-monetary rewards of creative freedom.

The production also features Lewis D. Wheeler as Jamie, a young man cut from much the same cloth as his father, and Nicholas Dillenburg as younger son Edmund, who is beset by health concerns. The production also features Melissa Baroni as the clan’s domestic servant, Cathleen.

The plays Edmiston chooses to regard as the Great American Plays are all family dramas, including, in a larger sense, "Our Town." As such they tackle over-arcing existential questions (life, death, meaning, love) and specific, difficult questions: Unfulfilled marriages, alcoholism, addiction, futile religious devotion, feckless sons and their disappointed fathers.

Rooted in O’Neill’s life

All of that, and more, finds its way into "Long Day’s Journey Into Night," an intimate play of epic ambition (and length; the play runs three and a half hours long), and a landmark in the American tradition of theatrical arts. The play is a Pulitzer Prize winner with roots dug deep into the author’s own native soil: O’Neill based it upon his own family experiences. The play parallels his own clan closely enough that the author left instructions for the work to be left unpublished for 25 years after his death, with the additional proviso that it never be produced. (A little legal maneuvering was all it took to sidestep those wishes. Whether O’Neill is spinning in his grave, generations of theater lovers are grateful.)

EDGE put the question to Edmiston: Is the family drama a genre that is particularly suited to examining the American psyche, even given that Americans pride themselves on a sometimes extreme strain of individualism?

"I think there is a great tradition in the theater of the theater artist examining the forces which have shaped him or her. I think artists tend to do their best whenever they truly look within. One of the things that’s really interesting about Eugene O’Neill is throughout the course of his career, from his early success with ’Beyond the Horizon,’ which was his first Pulitzer Prize, in the ’20s, and all the way through the ’30s, he was writing big, epic, ambitious dramas on a huge scale with a lot of experimentation of ideas and form: People wearing masks and updating Greek tragedies.

"They were very high-concept pieces," Edmiston added. "It was only as he got older that he let go of all that and really went inside of himself and looked at his family and created his best work be doing so. He had the ideal of creating the American Tragedy. He actually was able to achieve that by looking at his family, rather than working on this grand scale."

Edmiston suggested that the play’s greatness proceeds from both the way in which O’Neill processed his family experiences through the lens of his genius and the universal quality that the fictitious Tyrones possess. The precise circumstances might be different (not everybody has a "dope fiend" for a mother), but their grievances and discontents have a ring about them that anyone can identify with and understand as their own.

"It’s so autobiographical--it’s so specific to his life, right?--that for many years I thought of the play as an autobiography and didn’t see many of the universal elements that are in it," the director told EDGE. "As I entered more deeply inside the play, I came to see my father, I came to see my mother, I came to see my brother, I came to see myself - in new ways that I had not understood before.

"I fell in love with this play when I was 17-years-old, when I read it as a freshman in college," Edmiston continued. "I have loved it ever since. Eugene O’Neill was my first creative hero. Here I was, a young gay man, but I was in the closet. I didn’t attach at that time to gay writers like Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee or William Inge; there are a lot of gay playwrights, and in the 1970s we saw a renaissance of gay playwrights because they were coming out for the first time.

"Instead, I attached to O’Neill, and I thought in some ways it was because of these elements we are talking about: The intensity of the drama, the emotions [O’Neill invests in his work], the ideas, the ambition. In revisiting it now, at the age of 50, I came to see that as a young man what I was really responding to, in many ways, was that this is a play about family secrets, and a fear of being who you really are in the family.

"O’Neill was fascinated with the idea of masks," Edmiston continued. "He wrote some plays in which people wore masks; he wrote plays in which people had mask-like faces. I feel as though the characters have masks in ’Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ just as I did as a young man growing up gay in a family and struggling with fear and a sense of shame that people would know who I really was. On deeper intuitive level, I recognized that in his writing. "

Price of conformity

So there is, then, a tension between that aforementioned American individualism and a deeper impulse to belong to a group that accepts you, but at the price of insisting upon conformity.

"Absolutely," Edmiston said. "And within the family for the Tyrone family, and I think in our own families, we really struggle to accept and forgive our families. My father imagined he was going to have a different kind of son. He thought he was going to have a football player son. Instead, he had a gay theater artist son, right?"

EDGE chuckled in appreciative recognition of this filial dilemma.

"So we struggled to forgive and accept each other in a way that I think the characters do "Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ " Edmiston continued. "Edmund does this with his father. The parents have certain expectations of the kinds of children they were going to have. The children have certain expectations of the parents that they wanted to have. They all have to work through a lot of anger and sadness and guilt to try and get to a place of accepting and forgiving and loving one another. I think that is something that is very universal."

So (EDGE put in at this juncture), let’s talk Tennessee Williams... how does Edmiston see Williams and O’Neill being similar to one another as authors of great American plays? And in what ways do they diverge and pull against one another?

"Of course, O’Neill’s body of work made Tennessee Williams’ body of work possible," Edmiston noted. "O’Neill was the ancestor; he was the first one to kind of break through and give American drama its own voice and to take on hard, big themes in a way that no American playwright had ever done before.

"Tennessee Williams brought us forward in a different way because he brought an eloquence and poetry to dialogue, and a kind of grace that you don’t find in O’Neill’s work. O’Neill’s work is more muscular. They have a lot of similarities, I think--both of them are very interested in this discrepancy between what is true and what appears to be true. Both of them write about characters who construct elaborate illusions and lies around themselves, in order to sustain themselves and just keep on living.

In ’Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ which I directed a few years ago, it’s called ’mendacity.’ In "A Streetcar Named Desire,’ Blanche says, ’I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth.’ She longs for illusion. In ’The Iceman Cometh’ the characters are sustained by pipe dreams and illusions. So with each writer, there are fictions that their characters create and cling to in order to survive."

The Ptown connection

"Also, it’s interesting that Williams and O’Neill both have a history in Provincetown," Edmiston added. "They both had a home there for while--not at the same, time, but their life stories intersect there a little bit.

"What I found very different about directing O’Neill’s characters from Williams’ characters is, both of them write about damaged people and people who are outsiders, who don’t belong--[but] Williams’ characters have a damage that has a vulnerability about them and a sensuality about them, and they want to be loved. They are kind of needy characters, so you have to try and love them for all of their faults and damage.

"But O’Neill’s characters will not allow you to love them. They push you away. They’re harder, they’re tougher, they’re angrier. Their capacity for gentleness is not as great. Their damage has an emotional or psychological brutality about it. O’Neill’s characters can be crueler. In the world of Tennessee Williams, cruelty is unforgivable."

So what does all of this mean about O’Neill’s work, especially a play like "Long Day’s Journey Into Night?" Do we see O’Neill the pessimist here? Is the playwright offering us a warning? Or is this delving into his own soul with pen and ink an exorcism on O’Neill’s part?

"I think exorcism is a really good word for it," Edmiston allowed. "I think it was an act of forgiveness; he was looking back at his family and trying to forgive them. But I’ve also come to feel that the play is an act of revenge--he had a lot of anger at them. He presents them onstage in an unforgiving way; he brutally exposes them, the darkness in them."

O’Neill himself could not have overlooked this, EDGE noted, since he tried to ensure that the play would not see the light of day for at least a quarter century after his own death.

"Right, and he left instructions that it was never to be produced," Edmiston added. "One assumes that’s because he wanted everyone who actually knew his parents and brother to be dead [before the play was published] so that he would not tarnish their reputations. He’s putting his mother on the stage and calling her a ’dope fiend,’ right? That’s a pretty harsh thing for a child to do.

"We don’t go to ’Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ because we think, ’Oh, that’s a beautiful play about forgiveness,’ " Edmiston added. "I think it’s the catharsis of it, the cleansing of the pain and the rage before you can get to the forgiveness that is the full experience."

A successful career

Edmiston’s long history of critical and popular success on the Boston stage stretches across years and includes works such as "In the Next Room," "The History Boys," "The Light in the Piazza," and others. Edmiston, who has won numerous accolades for direction from both the Elliot Norton Awards and the Independent Reviewers of New England, shared with EDGE his views on what makes for a great production. There’s no one magic bullet that will make any given play a surefire hit, though; the magic of a transcendent production is as mercurial and mysterious as in any other form of art.

"It’s something completely different every time because you’re responding to a different imagined world every time," Edmiston said. "For me as a director, along with the actors and designers, we are interpretive artists. Our pleasure and our privilege, and our responsibility, is to serve the creative artist, and the playwright is the creative artist.

"For me as a director, I like to take a journey to a different world each time. Some directors, whether it’s a film director or a stage director, have a much more auteur sensibility where they will bring the world of the playwright into their world. For me, the thrill is assembling with a group of colleagues and taking a journey into a new world that is a new vision of that particular writer. Sarah Ruhl has a spirit about her in "The Next Room" or "The Vibrator Play" that is unique. Christopher Durang has a spirit, an energy, and a value system to him that is unique.

"Entering into the mind and spirit of a particular writer each time is what gives me the greatest pleasure, and what I hope defines my body of work," Edmiston continued. "I suppose there are consistencies between my own values and those of the playwrights I respond to, but it’s also the case that the experience you might get from when I directed ’The Light in the Piazza’ is very different from what you might get from ’Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’ and that is the experience of illuminating the work of the writer who imagined it to begin with."

With that, the conversation came full circle, arriving back at the question of presenting a classic play as though it were something never before staged. EDGE wondered in what ways this approach allowed Edmiston to engage a contemporary audience and enter into the zeitgeist of the times, 70 years after O’Neill wrote the play in 1942 (and 56 years after the play’s inaugural 1956 production).

"When I’m working at a play, I always look at it this way: I don’t have a message or a moral that I want to communicate to the audience," Edmiston responded. "I look at the play itself as the answer to a question. So I ask myself, ’If this play is the answer, what is the question?’ So I form a question in my mind. I feel that I am essentially asking the audience that question, and allowing the play to be the answer.

"I also invite the actors and the designers to do the same, to formulate their ideas about the play in terms of a question. That’s the kind of dialogue we have with the audience."

A terrific cast

Given the terrific cast Edmiston has assembled for this production, the questions will be smart and probing.

"They are a really, really smart cast, and they have done an enormous amount of preparation on the play," Edmiston told EDGE. "And of course, we know it, so we bring a lot of history to our first rehearsal--you have that with a classic. When you’re doing a new play, you start cold, but we already had a lot of preconceptions [going into this staging of ’Long Day’s Journey Into Night’].

"And I had this really interesting experience after my first week of rehearsal. I told the actors that they had become my dream--because having read the play first, I read it almost like a novel, and it reads almost like a novel because it’s so full of stage direction. These characters had lived in my imagination like characters would from a novel; like Gatsby and Daisy do. I had some idea of them in my head.

"And through the rehearsal process I felt a transference from the imagined characters in my head into the four living, breathing people in front of me, with all their own unique qualities and gifts. That happened for me during the rehearsal process: Mary Tyrone, instead of becoming a character in my imagination, became Karen MacDonald right in front of me. That was a fascinating process; I’ve never had that happen quite so fully before."

"A Long Day’s Journey Into Night" runs through April 22, 2012, at the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit www.newrep.org

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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