Long 'Long Day's Journey'

January 27, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

What stays with you long after you've left the Arena Stage production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" is the realization that, though the Tyrones possess a dangerously warped family dynamic, that dynamic is built on love.

It's a touching approach to a play about a family so dysfunctional it rivals Greek tragedies.

Most of the underlying love is conveyed by Richard Kneeland and Tana Hicken as James and Mary Tyrone. When they embrace in the first act, Kneeland, and especially Hicken, seem almost embarrassed by their passion after 35 years of marriage.

This romantic passion is the most significant interpretive aspect of director Douglas C. Wager's production, which is an otherwise standard reading of O'Neill's highly autobiographical script. It also illuminates the more familiar, darker side of Tyrone family life -- the hatred that keeps this family of four tearing at each other year after year, until their warring becomes a kind of ritual.

Unfortunately, this substrata of family affection comes across unevenly. Casey Biggs and Rainn Wilson, as Tyrone sons Jamie and Edmund, are more effective at conveying fraternal love than filial. We see cynical Jamie's affection for the sickly Edmund, but the example of Kneeland and Hicken makes us hunger for more. Also, there's next to no perceptible bond of caring between Biggs' Jamie and Kneeland as his father; without it, their enmity toward each other loses some of its bite.

But while the sons are less intricately defined, the portrayals of the senior Tyrones are rich with detail. Kneeland's James is at once the theatrical matinee idol and the worried husband. He gazes at his wife with unconcealed heartbreak when she resumes her drug habit. Hicken's Mary begins the play with a cheerful demeanor, but her hands flutter nervously, constantly checking her hair, which starts out perfectly arranged. As the action progresses and her drug use increases, her hair gets more disheveled and her mannerisms become more subdued.

The play is set in the living room of the Tyrone summer cottage, which O'Neill intended be a replica of the small, dark, claustrophobic living room in his family's Connecticut home.

Although set designer Ming Cho Lee is undoubtedly familiar with this landmark -- which is now a museum -- he must have realized it would have been futile to re-create it on Arena's vast Fichandler Stage. Instead, his set surrounds the room with a white moat of light. The rationale seems to come from Mary's feelings of isolation. The result suggests that the entire family is hovering over an abyss.

About three-fourths of the way through this four-hour production, James asks Mary if she can't forget the past. "No, dear," she replies. "But I forgive. I always forgive. , . ."

"Long Day's Journey" was one of O'Neill's last scripts, and it is both an expression of indelible memory and, as he wrote in the dedication, a yearning for forgiveness. At Arena, thanks mostly to the depictions of his parents' alter egos, that yearning shines through the fire and rage.

"Long Day's Journey Into Night"

Where: Arena Stage, 6th Street and Maine Avenue S.W., Washington

When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 1 p.m. selected Saturdays and Sundays, and at 11 a.m. Feb. 8. Through Feb. 12

Tickets: $20-$39

Call: (202) 488-3300

** 1/2

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