Entertainment » Theatre

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

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Apr 9, 2012
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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. "



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