Review: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Soulpepper)

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is the stuff that 15-year-old Soulpepper was founded on. A piece of classic American theatre, it is the largely biographical story of Eugene O’Neill’s family, published 25 years after his death. Who other than Soulpepper to tackle an arduously long and painful microscope into an Irish American family at the turn of the century?

I have to admit that during a grey midwinter week this play comes as a double whammy. I walked into the theatre from a particularly bumming week, with a friend who felt the same, and braced myself for a whole lot of sadness. We weren’t disappointed, just driven to drink afterward.

Coming in part from an Irish American family from New England, I very much felt as though I was watching the story of my great grandparents and I could hear patterns in my mother’s language that I now realize must be inherited from her ancestry. Talk of going to “the poorhouse” (did a place like this exist? My mother used to threaten…) and saying “mumma” instead of mom. Of course it is the harshness that permeates the piece that will explain so much for those who come from an Irish background and I will offer that the Irish Americans from the turn of the century wear their own brand of harsh.

There is no doubt Soulpepper is home to some of Toronto’s finest actors. Each performance is so well articulated that somehow you nearly want more after the show’s three and a half hours. That said, I thought some of the casting itself was incongruous and so there were a few things that just didn’t quite resonate for me.

Nancy Palk is a wonderful actress – one of Canada’s best – but her earthy prairie style of sensibility permeates so much of her work and I felt that she was not nearly shrill or flippant enough for the role of Mary Tyrone. This really has less to do with her performance – which was so carefully and fully articulated – and more to do with her stature and voice. I felt that Joseph Ziegler brought so much love to the role of James Tyrone but that he seemed more like a friendly teddy bear of a drunk than a nasty and cheap man who had lost his way. I wanted to see both sides of this character as he (like all characters in the show) is written to change on a dime.

This was the crux for me – I felt that there was a softness and slowness particularly in the first half of the show and it felt like I was watching a razor that had been dulled for performance. I believe these roles where written to be harsh, shrill and both hurting and hurtful.

What I saw instead was a far gentler variation of this piece – it felt very, very Canadian. It all felt very blasé off the top for me. Much of this had to do with the direction and set. My companion for the evening took real exception with the set – for a playwright known for inventing the theatre of American realism and for a company that often does just that, my date felt like the open concept stage looked more like a rehearsal set than one ready for a play of this intensity.
I felt this intensity was dulled all together by the amount of sitting in director Diana Leblanc’s staging. It’s hard to be intense when everyone is just sitting across from each other. There were many scenes where the blocking seemed to be awkward and wooden, I was pretty surprised by this.

I will offer that the dulling of the first half did, in fact sharpen the playwright’s sting in the second. Jamie was played beautifully by Evan Buliung, and when he confesses to sickly Edmund his intention to destroy him, it felt as though the entire play had slowly built toward that moment. Gregory Prest’s Edmund definitely grew on me throughout his journey on stage. Rounding out the cast was Krystin Pellerin. I was not in love with her over the top Irish Maid Cathleen in the first half (she was nearly a hunch back with a facial tick) but she grew on me once she joined the cast in a long sitting session. There was a lot of sitting.

With over three hours of stage time, this show definitely earns its title but you’ll be hard pressed to find another production that works harder for your attention. It’s hard to explain to Canadians when something seems too Canadian on stage – it just felt like they were all apologizing and drinking Tetley tea when I wanted them to be berating and drinking whiskey.

This said, there is no mistaking the sadness of this piece. O’Neill wrote it at the end of his life when he was very sick and nearly unable to use his hands. It is as though by writing about his family, he could be closer to them. With so much of his family already dead, it is as though he wrote this final piece to come home.

Long Day’s Journey into Night is playing at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill St) till March 28, 2012
– Shows dates and times vary so please check out the calendar
– Tickets range from $32 to $68
– Tickets are available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666