Soulpepper brings a rarely (well)-produced theatre classic to the Young Centre.
The playwright’s personal history features prominently in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s landmark classic of American theatre. For Soulpepper’s production of the play, which opened February 23, there are multiple layers of history to consider—not just that of the play itself, but of director Diana Leblanc’s association with it.
So, briefly; LDJIN, widely considered O’Neill’s crowning achievement, wasn’t produced or published until after the author’s death, at his request. It’s a barely disguised autobiographical account of his own family’s private shames and shortcomings, dramatically condensed into one devastating day and set shortly before O’Neill decided to devote his life to playwriting.
Leblanc, a founding member of Soulpepper, has an extensive resume as a director, but her time helming the Stratford Festival’s mid-90’s production of LDJIN ranks among her career highlights. A filmed staging of the production cleaned up at the 1996 Genie Awards. Four of the show’s five actors (including the late William Hutt as patriarch James Tyrone Sr.) swept the performance categories.
There is at least one obvious reason LDJIN isn’t produced often: it’s a monster of a play to perform and stage, requiring actors with great stamina and subtlety. Over the course of 3 hours, the four Tyrone family members reduce each other to emotionally devastated wrecks (aided by copious amounts of whiskey and other substances). But their attacks and rebukes must be tempered by deep, abiding love for each other. It’s so easy for the play to slide into a morass of constant yelling and histrionics—a pitfall this production thankfully avoids.
Leblanc and Soulpepper have a cast capable of going toe-to-toe with one another confidently. Joseph Ziegler (who already has a late-career defining role at Soulpepper, as their perennially popular Ebeneezer Scrooge) has both the noblesse and pettiness of James Tyrone Sr. down pat, though his patriarch seems to lack some of the overweening pride and rakishness often referred to by the other characters behind his back. Nancy Palk, so fiery in recent Soulpepper roles requiring domineering and overbearing mothers (Awake and Sing!, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?), gives a nicely nuanced turn as a clinging and self-doubting Mary Tyrone, gives a nicely nuanced turn as a clinging and self-doubting Mary Tyrone, especially in the first act; in the second act, her increasingly unhinged character doesn’t hit quite so hard. She seems lost in the unusually airy set, designed by Peter Hartwell as a gorgeous seaside estate, with exceptional sight lines into the living room where all the action takes place. Unfortunately, the house feels more like a stately manor than the badly maintained summer home alluded to in the play, where the induces claustrophobia.
The younger generation—Gregory Prest as the mysteriously ill Edmund (O’Neill’s stand-in); Evan Buliung as James Tyrone Jr., an overbearing and self-defeating ne’er-do-well; and Krystin Pellerin as the family’s unusually upbeat maid Cathleen—all dig into their roles with relish, especially Prest, whose slow-burn Edmund blows up with rage at unexpected moments.
All the players have done a fine job of finding the humour in the material, which is a blessing. Those surprising laughs, plus a stiff drink at intermission, bolsters the viewer for the bared pain to come.
Despite Leblanc’s history with the play, this production shouldn’t be judged against her past one, nor on any other, but on its own merits. We’re glad Soulpepper has brought this story of a past generation’s heartbreak back, for a new generation of theatregoers to experience in Toronto.
When originally published wording in the last paragraph suggested the reviewer had seen the previous production of the play that had been directed by Leblanc. This is not the case; we’ve amended the language to avoid that implication.