Overdose deaths rose nearly 30% in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a development aided, at least in part, by the isolation and hopelessness of the Covid-19 pandemic. Trapped in houses, confronting emotional spirals and bitter revelations, people sought release any way they could, even if it resulted in self-harm. That has always been the world of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, which dealt frankly not just with drug abuse but the environmental factors underpinning addiction long before the phrase “opioid epidemic” entered common parlance. Robert O’Hara’s streamlined interpretation of the 1956 play, an Audible production at the Minetta Lane Theatre, faces this particular twindemic head-on.
It surprises me, actually, that it’s taken this long for a staging to confront this contemporary crisis so directly. As is his custom, O’Hara approaches the subject in an unambiguous manner, placing the shadows and the whispers of O’Neill’s text squarely in the audience’s view. When Mary Tyrone (Elizabeth Marvel) coyly mentions going upstairs to lie down and calm her nerves, she ascends the staircase of Clint Ramos’ modern farmhouse set, applies a tourniquet, and prepares a needle in the cutout window that represents her private hideaway. Often below, her husband James (Bill Camp) and sons Jamie (Jason Bowen) and Edmund (Ato Blankson-Wood) belt bourbon with abandon, taking just as much advantage of their temporary solitude.
No doubt there is a certain obviousness to this reading, but in the context of addiction, it largely works. “Alone together” has been the prevailing domestic theme these last two years, and it makes sense that the Tyrones, forced to quarantine at their Connecticut estate after the world shuts down, would invest in ways to hide their vices in plain sight. (The production takes place in August 2020, with projected CNN newscasts establishing the timeline, and the running time has been cut to two intermissionless hours.) O’Hara shows how the family work effortfully to establish and maintain the façade of normalcy—and how quickly it is erased once the dovetailing anxieties of their lives can no longer be ignored. It’s a brave and complicated look at how the occluded world that O’Neill investigated decades ago remains just as shrouded in secrecy, even when it becomes impossible to ignore.
The success of this production is established in the early scenes. Mary, dressed in casual leggings and a lived-in sweatshirt, practices yoga with the news on in the background. (Ramos also did the costumes.) James enters carrying Starbucks takeout and Amazon packages. The boys wear AirPods and fiddle with smartphones; disposable masks and hand sanitizer are omnipresent. Even as the charade of normal life continues, with banal conversation and the familiar rhythm of a day, something sinister lurks in plain view. Despite judicious cutting, very little seems altered in the dialogue that remains, and O’Hara establishes his world within those parameters.
There are elements that don’t come together as harmoniously, however, and the early momentum isn’t always maintained. Edmund’s unspoken ailment—consumption in the urtext—is swapped for Covid here, and this new level of subtext comes across less believably. The uncontrolled cough and general malaise he displays leave little room for uncertainty, yet the rest of the Tyrone clan continue their descent into wishful thinking about his condition. It strains credulity that at the height of the pandemic in 2020, when little was understood of the disease and treatment options were scarce, that the rest of the Tyrone clan would go about deliberately exposing themselves to an obviously infected person. It also blunts one of the production’s most effective late images—when a drunk James Tyrone, rattled by Edmund’s coughing, recoils from the family table until he puts on a mask.
The ineffectiveness of the Covid frame may also be related to Blankson-Wood’s performance, which never rises to the level of his co-stars. Edmund, the authorial stand-in, is the trickiest role in the script; even more so than the addled Mary, there is a spectral, poetic quality to his countenance that is difficult to capture. Blankson-Wood takes a rather prosaic approach—he neither resigns himself to his faith nor rails against his grim circumstances. The introduction of Covid to the storyline demands a sense of existential dread that he doesn’t deliver.
Bowen manages the bravado that Jamie shows the world with aplomb while also communicating the deep sadness it camouflages. His charged interactions with Camp’s James reveal the ways in which these characters uncomfortably mirror each other, projecting unavoidably their failures and fears. Camp does not convincingly come across as an aging matinee idol—that’s another remnant of the original play that doesn’t entirely align with a contemporary reimagining—but he nails the pathos of a man who feels unfulfilled despite a lifetime of seeming success.
It is Marvel, though, who delivers a shatteringly convincing portrait of a woman at the tenuous end of her rope. The progression of her Mary from upbeat and smiling in the morning—a ruse that everyone, including herself, likely sees right through—to dissociative and desolate by the play’s end is uncomfortably realistic. It’s the progression of what we’ve been forced to witness throughout the performance, what O’Hara refuses to hide. Her fugue-like final scene emerges without a hint of sentimentalism—it simply, almost clinically, removes the final strand of illusion from the situation.
In a rare moment of clarity, Mary tries explaining to her husband why she cannot simply move beyond her afflictions. “The past is the present,” she tells him. “It’s the future too.” This unapologetically 21st century take on Long Day’s Journey into Night proves how true those words are when society continues to shroud its problems in darkness.