Eugene O’Neill is one of America’s greatest playwrights. Over the course of his career he almost single-handedly lifted American playwriting from being looked at as narrow and provincial to internationally-respected and first-rate.
So one should approach his texts, while not with reverent awe, certainly with respect; with the idea that he wrote his play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” almost exactly as he wanted it to be seen. Because it’s one thing to go against his wishes and produce the show only three years after his death as his wife did and it’s quite another to add characters and scenes, as director Jean-Marie Apostolidès does in the Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley’s production of this classic play.
In his program notes director Apostolidès writes that he would like to avoid “reducing” Journey into a “realistic representation of an uncharacteristic American family.” As part of this effort he has added scenes throughout the play in which Young Mary and Young James, ghosts of the family’s mother and father in their younger lives, repeat the important lines of the show in an effort to reveal the show’s “unconscious structure” and “multiple layers of signification.”
Unfortunately, these scenes reveal nothing – they merely feel like Cliff’s Notes versions of the play. As a director Mr. Apostolidès should know that the play itself is the best communicator of its unconscious structure. That’s why O’Neill wrote it. Rather than trust the text and the actors to communicate the intent, the emotions and the subtext inherent in the play Mr. Apostolidès has instead chosen to treat the audience like lack wits and press his own agenda upon the play.
In one bizarre sequence Mr. Apostolidès has the ghost of Young Mary engage in an act of quasi-lesbianism. This is certainly a novel approach – primarily because this idea isn’t supported anywhere in the text.
The further sadness of this approach is that you can sense a talented and valiant cast working to overcome the staging. In the second act as the family dynamics become more twisted and sinister, Edmund’s fights with his father, brother and himself take on a true yearning and desperation.
Edmund, well played by Noah Feinstein is torn between rage and hope and defeat. Traditionally Edmund is seen as O’Neill’s double, but Mr. Feinstein brings enough frailty to the role that the character’s future success – let alone survival – is in doubt, enhancing his plight. Charlie Anderson has wonderful presence as the miserly head of the house and Erik Kaul is delightfully twisted as the snaky older brother Jamie, both encouraging and cutting to Edmund. Mikel Clifford infuses the mother Mary with just the right amount of nervous hysteria.
In keeping with the director’s vision the set and lighting are spare. Lighting designer David Starke does a good job conveying moods and spaces with very few instruments.
Mr. Apostolidès has chosen to change the structure and rhythm of an American classic. He writes that he does this to help illuminate the play. Regrettably, neither he nor the play looks good in this new light.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by the Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley plays at the Live Oak Park Theatre, 1301 Shattuck at Berryman now through May 11th. Tickets can be purchased at the door or by calling 528-5620.