On entering Arena’s Fichandler playhouse, patrons craving a preview of what the company’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night has in store would be well advised to look to the lighting grid rather than the stage. Not that Ming Cho Lee’s setting is less evocative than usual. Quite the contrary. The color-drained, islandlike New England parlor he’s devised for the brooding brood of James Tyrone is every bit as defining as one might hope.
But as Arena-goers know, clues to a production’s style in this in-the-round auditorium often hover on high—up in the shadows above the spotlights, where directors hide the bric-a-brac they’ll bring swooping down when theatrical ambience must be conjured from thinnest air. For The Odyssey, Douglas C. Wager concealed sails and seaweed up there; for The Revengers’ Comedies, a life-size, collapsible London Bridge. Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterwork offers the director verbal images of fog and fantasy as well as tales of stage heroics and barroom brawling. Wager could justify all manner of wind-swept curtains and costume-drama detritus if he wanted to. He doesn’t. All that’s in the lighting grid this time is lights. No distractions. No spectacle. Not even a fog machine. Small wonder the play’s gathering storms acquire hurricane force as the actors strut and fret their four hours upon the stage.
O’Neill based the Tyrones on his own family. The son of celebrated actor James O’Neill (who wasted what was by all accounts a remarkable talent by touring for decades in The Count of Monte Cristo), young Eugene spent much of his childhood accompanying his father, mother, and older brother from city to city, and much of his adulthood escaping them by running off to college and to sea, where he contracted malaria and later tuberculosis. The O’Neill family seems only to have experienced relaxation in its seaside summer home in New London, Conn., which is where Long Day’s Journey is set.
The play catches up with the Tyrone clan in 1912 during a summer of crises. Eugene’s stand-in, Edmund (Rainn Wilson), is suffering from a lingering “summer cold” that everyone suspects is something far more serious. Edmund’s wastrel brother Jamie (Casey Biggs) is drinking himself into oblivion and fighting with their miserly father James (Richard Kneeland). And between bouts of self-pity, they’re all keeping a watchful eye on Mary (Tana Hicken), who is freshly returned from her latest sanitarium treatment for morphine addiction. Mary’s problems began during her difficult pregnancy some 20 years earlier, when tightfisted James hired a quack who only knew how to stifle her pain with prescriptions. That James is now sending Edmund to another quack to treat what might well be tuberculosis has everyone in the family rattled, especially as Mary keeps disappearing upstairs for wide-eyed “naps” that lead everyone to believe she’s slipping back into her unhealthy old habit.
While the clouds gather slowly in Long Day’s Journey, there’s never any doubt that a storm is brewing. Hicken’s Mary flutters like a caged bird as she watches her family watching her. Her voice is chirpy, her hands fly to her mouth, neck, and hair as if to ward off suspicious glances, her eyes flit away from people to alight on such neutral objects as chairs and whiskey bottles. All of this alarms her family, but worries them less than when her voice lowers and her gaze becomes fixed in a middle distance on which only she can focus. Once Mary starts talking about the mist (“I love the fog; it hides you from the world, and the world from you”) the others know the game is up, but they hide their despair as long as they can.
Kneeland’s resonant patriarch is a surprisingly empathetic old ham. James is generally played as a stingy, unfeeling monster, but Kneeland mines a deep vein of regret in the character, which makes his tales of childhood deprivation seem painful rather than manipulative. In the many times I’ve seen Long Day’s Journey over the years, I’ve never heard James’ repetition of the word “poorhouse” turn so clearly into a perverse echo of Mary’s mantralike bleat about wanting a “home.”
Wilson’s Edmund initially seems hopelessly lightweight, but becomes more interesting late in the evening. Described early on as being “always a bundle of nerves, like his mother,” he doesn’t come into his own until she retires to the attic to look for her wedding dress and he’s left to fend for himself. His verbal sparring with Biggs’ epically self-destructive Jamie feels particularly natural and unforced. Since Jamie spends most of the final act in a drunken stupor, Biggs must wreak emotional havoc while climbing unsteadily onto tables and collapsing in a series of increasingly surly heaps. At one point he manages to have a hilarious mid-tirade altercation with a rocking chair without ever losing the thread of his argument. As a tippling maid, Holly Twyford also has a few pricelessly inebriate moments.
Lee’s gray-green planking and Paul Tazewell’s muted costumes contribute to the weather-beaten, misty quality of the evening, and they are nicely enhanced by Scott Zielinski’s ghostly white light, which emanates not just from above, but also from a wide, pallid moat that surrounds the stage. The moat serves as a simple but eloquent reminder of how isolated the Tyrones are, trapped on a private island of recrimination where tragedy must inevitably wash over them in waves.
The environment in which Potomac Theater Project has chosen to mount José Rivera’s apocalyptic nightmare, Marisol, is by design far less pristine. The story of a Hispanic woman who finds herself trapped in a rapidly decaying, futuristic New York City as mutinous angels battle with a senile God, it’s a glorious mess of a play. Appropriately, PTP has found it a gloriously messy home: Olney Theater’s cavernous, spookily lit (by Daniel MacLean Wagner) scene shop.
The place looks pretty amazing. Hanging from the rafters are perhaps a dozen open suitcases with charred manuscripts spilling from them. A graffitied stage floor is littered with crumpled newspapers that will later skitter around in fan-generated winds. When a blizzard is required, confetti hits the fan—an image that brings to mind the more scatalogical one that might be said to be the author’s starting point.
Rivera’s New York is a dystopian disaster area. As Marisol (Elizabeth Piccio) looks around her neighborhood, she sees one man worshiping a fire hydrant and another man being set on fire in a park. She sleeps with both a foot-long knife and a crucifix under her pillow, the former suggesting a practical approach to physical problems, the latter that she’s aware there’s more to her dilemma than urban blight. No one has seen the moon for nine months, apples are extinct, Ohio is on fire, and rainwater turns your skin red. So when Marisol’s guardian angel shows up (the winged kind, not a safety patrol), although her first impulse is to wonder if a miracle is in the offing (maybe a lowering of her rent), she’s not really surprised to hear that more cosmic issues are at stake. “The Universal body is sick,” says the angel (Tia Howell). “The infected earth is running a temperature….God is old and dying and he’s taking the rest of us with him.”
The solution, as nearly as the angel can see, is revolution, and she’s taken up arms (an Uzi) to prepare for the “celestial Vietnam” to come. That leaves Marisol unprotected and on her own, and her subsequent odyssey introduces her to a series of traumas as well as the possibility of love. Scattered, frenetic, and a bit too long for its own good, Rivera’s play is less interesting as drama than as a mélange of apocalyptic images, which makes it a plus that the imagery is nicely realized in Jim Petosa’s elaborate-on-a-budget production. James Kronzer’s environmental setting, which makes excellent use of a fog machine, and Ben Zastrow’s sound design, with its imploding gunshots, helps tremendously. And the acting is as credible as the situations allow. Richard Pilcher is particularly effective in a series of determinedly odd cameos, including one as a torching victim whose flesh literally drips from him.
As with all PTP’s politically caustic productions, admission is free, though reservations are advisable, since word gets around pretty quickly. Marisol is the first of two shows the company will perform in repertory at Olney’s Scene Shop. The other is Howard Barker’s Scenes From an Execution, from which PTP previewed an extraordinary, expectation-whetting scene two seasons ago. Execution will be playing this weekend, and the two will rotate thereafter.