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The Lies That Bind

Two views of family life from O'Neill: one a fantasy, the other the grim truth.

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A rare opportunity for theatergoers to view the Eugene O’Neill diptych of family life: the earlier comedy of how he’d have wanted it and the later drama of how it was. The former is charming; the latter, sublime. Ah, Wilderness! (1933) concerns the Miller family in a small Connecticut town. Father Nat is a newspaper editor happily married to Essie, doting mother of Arthur, a complacent Yalie; Richard, the high-school grad and authorial alter ego; Mildred, the tomboy; and Tommy, the brat. The time is July 4 and 5, 1906, and, save for fireworks bursting in air, the world is at peace. Essie’s brother, Sid, and Nat’s sister, Lily, are permanently and unhappily in love: She won’t marry a drunkard, even one striving to reform. Richard is in puppy love with Muriel, daughter of the curmudgeonly nabob David McComber, who is infuriated by Richard’s love letters to her full of quotes from such lascivious poets as Rossetti and Swinburne.

Richard doesn’t know that Muriel’s Dear John was sent to him under duress and, hurt, has his first (unsuccessful) bout with liquor and sex via a small-time floozie, Belle. His hotel escapade worries his parents, but all ends well on a moonlit beach with Muriel, while the older couples arrive at their own sweet (Nat and Essie) or bittersweet (Lily and Sid) conclusions. Daniel Sullivan has staged O’Neill’s foray into Twain-and-Tarkington territory with style. Thomas Lynch has tamed the Beaumont’s vastness with a central platform -- a stage upon a stage -- overhung by a free-floating architrave on which sun and moon, fireworks, and a distant beacon flourish under Peter Kaczorowski’s lights.

Craig T. Nelson as the bumbling patriarch Nat, Debra Monk as the maternally conniving Essie, Leslie Lyles as the tremulous but adamant Lily, and Tracy Middendorf as the precocious coquette Muriel contribute handsomely. Leo Burmester’s Sid lacks charm, and Jenna Lamia’s Mildred confuses adolescent with spastic. But Jenn Thompson’s Belle superbly balances the comforting with the calculating, and Sam Trammell’s Richard -- boyishly defiant, winsomely naïve, and bottomlessly decent -- offers a memorable tribute to being 17.

Turn then to Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), which concerns 24 hours in the life-in-death of the Tyrone family. It is on this day in their sprawling New London summer cottage that father James bemoans the poverty that made him a miser and had him abandon a career as a Shakespearean actor for more lucrative one-night stands in The Count of Monte Cristo. His wife, Mary, recently released from the hospital, reverts to her morphine addiction, incurred during her second pregnancy. Jamie, the elder, admits to his guilty envy of his younger brother, Edmund, and reaffirms his wastrel’s life of booze and whoring. Edmund learns that he has consumption, but refuses to go to the state farm to which his father would send him. Cathleen, the maid (the good Rosemary Fine), contributes comic relief.

The play is abrasively specific and farsightedly universal, scorched by the white-hot poetry of truth. The Tyrones shuttle between mutual accusations and abject apologies, stopping only for a wallow in delusion and nostalgia. The air is heavy with recrimination, made heavier with self-pity and self-loathing. Somehow, these four people manage to embody a fallen world, with all its accommodated vices and downtrodden virtues. And the diurnal journey becomes also the stagger through life, so endlessly wounding, so unliberating from the prison of the self.

This is an immense play, the towering achievement of American drama, that grows, incredibly, with each successive viewing. It awes the spectator and humbles the critic; it brings out the best awareness we can muster even in this production, scaled down to a tiny stage that cannot convey a rambling cottage crisscrossed by living ghosts.

None of the actors is quite right for the job. The booming Brian Murray is no matinee idol; Frances Sternhagen (Mary) and Paul Carlin (Jamie) lack a measure of complexity and poetry; Paul McGrane is too cheerily apple-cheeked for the consumptive Edmund. Yet they all gradually grow into their parts and, overleaping their lacks, etch themselves into our consciousness. Charlotte Moore’s no-nonsense direction slightly overemphasizes the gallows humor at the expense of the gall in a play that finally envelops these flawed and damaged people in a shroud of forgiveness. But even cut and somewhat defanged, O’Neill’s masterwork epitomizes both the human comedy and the tragic sense of life.


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