Last night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went downtown to catch the Guthrie’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in what was the final performance of the Guthrie run.
We had deliberately attended one of the final performances, and we had done so for two reasons.
First, the production had received mixed-to-negative notices—by Twin Cities standards—when it had opened, and we had wanted to give the production time to settle. (In Minnesota, the ironclad rule is that anything and everything is entitled to a good review; this regrettable practice forces readers to read between the lines in order to pick up any worthwhile information—the same situation Russians faced back in the days of Pravda.)
Second, the actor engaged to portray James Tyrone, Sr., had withdrawn from the production halfway through the run, and been replaced by another actor thrown into the production “cold”.
The production was not distinguished. The play calls for four great actors, and there was no great actor on the Guthrie stage last night. In fact, none of the actors was up to the demands of his or her role.
I thought the production was misdirected. Joe Dowling, Artistic Director of The Guthrie, had directed the production himself—and, in my estimation, Dowling made two critical errors.
First, Dowling trimmed the drama from four hours to three, a trimming achieved by cutting text and having characters speak in overlapping dialogue, much in the manner of a Howard Hawks screwball comedy. This trivialized much of O’Neill’s writing.
Second, Dowling failed to realize that all four members of the Tyrone family are highly sympathetic, which is what makes the play great, and not just another family drama. In the Guthrie production, the family members battled, overtly and psychologically, but they were never sympathetic. They were wounded, unpleasant and at times unnecessarily rancorous, but they were never allowed to reveal their admirable qualities—and this was the root cause of the production’s failure. “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is a deeply humane play that should make an audience weep, and not a story of gratuitous nastiness that leaves an audience unmoved. Simply put, Dowling did not understand the play, and directed it as contemporary Irish drama (which is Dowling’s métier).
The physical production was grossly overproduced, and not at all attractive. The entire Tyrone house was put onstage, and it proved intrusive to the drama. Once again, I accuse The Guthrie of a “show the money” policy—The Guthrie apparently believes that if productions look expensive (if not lavish), the public will be satisfied and the company’s work done.
The Guthrie had never before staged “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, inexplicable given the play’s stature.
Five years ago, Josh and I had attended a production of the play at Theatre In The Round. That production, too, had been haunted with cast problems—the actor portraying James Tyrone, Sr., had become ill, and the production had been forced to shut down for a week—and Theatre In The Round’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” was never able to recover from the setback.
I suppose it would be fair to say that the play has been unlucky in Minneapolis.