Despite a few bumps, this finely acted ‘Journey’ is worth the trip

Kathryn Meisle as Mary Tyrone and Derek Smith as James strike perfect notes. All photos by Hubert Schriebl

By David Lampe-Wilson
2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

For its final play of the season and its current entry in its American Masters series, Weston Playhouse has opted for Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The play, considered by many as the finest piece of American theater of the 20th century, contains some of the best writing of any era.

The story is the tragedy of an American family, the Tyrones — who retreat into a fog of alcohol and morphine in order to cope with their lives. The story is made all the more tragic because it leaves little hope for the future; indeed, the future for the Tyrones can only be seen as one long cycle of a repeated past bound in by addiction. As the mother Mary Tyrone laments, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”

It is August of 1912 and the Tyrones are at their summer home, starting a new day. Mary brags that she has gained some weight after a recent illness, and her husband, the actor James, applauds her new health and happiness. Meanwhile, sons Jamie and Edmund linger in the dining room after breakfast, telling stories and laughing. And while they each love the other, the surface happiness is revealed to be a sham as feelings of estrangement begin to surface. As the day wears on, and the four unsuccessfully grapple with their failings, remembrance of things past gives way to remembrance of things lost and the day slips into a night steeped in guilt, blame, addiction and an all-enveloping fog.

It is rare that you hear such rich dialogue in modern theater; O’Neill lays out his four acts with precision and, if you are alert to the rich language and recurring symbolism, the three-plus hour running time sails along.

Andrew Veerstra,seated, is the much-loved son Edmund and Derek Smith as his father James.

But all is not well on this Journey and one is left to wonder whether Director Ethan McSweeny has faith in his material. McSweeney has come up with a “concept” for this production; it is “new” and “modern” and woefully distracting. The set is skeletal, and after reading the dedication of the play from O’Neill to his wife, Edmund (Andrew Veerstra) leads us onto the set and recites O’Neill’s scene instructions. And yes, a green shaded lamp is indeed plugged into a chandelier above and that varnished oak rocker does have a leather bottom, but what’s the point? The audience is aware that it is in a theater and that this is the story of a theatrical family. While the dedication is an interesting way of opening the show, repeating O’Neill’s set requirements is jarring and we begin to suspect that a production of The Glass Menagerie could break out at any moment. This “new” opening and the impoverished set by Lee Savage serve as distractions and is an off-putting start to an otherwise satisfying production.

Actor Andrew Veerstra is stellar as the sweet, much-loved son Edmund who has been diagnosed with consumption. Veerstra makes the most of O’Neill’s literary language, especially during his Act IV descriptions of Edmund’s time at sea. This is a multi-layered, glowing performance and well worth the journey alone.

The surface happiness is a sham in the Tyrone household, from left, Kathyrn Meisle, Andrew Veerstra, Liam Craig as Jamie and Derek Smith.

Kathryn Meisle’s Mary Tyrone is a fragile filigree of emotion, waning and then intensifying as she drifts away in a mist of morphine and isolation. She is the nexus of the family, her loss and her loneliness seeping into every corner of a house she hates and a life she regrets. Meisle underplays her “mad scene” and, in so doing, gives it perfect weight and metre.

Derek Smith’s patriarch James appears even-handed and grounded, well aware of his career mistakes and drawing our sympathy. This complicated character needs a player of flexibility and Smith slides in and out of James’ many moods with alacrity.

More problematic is Liam Craig as Jamie, whose bombastic approach nearly scuttles his quiet cynicism. While Craig skillfully plays his Act IV drunk scene with a fine mix of anger and humor, his earlier scenes have a tendency to go a bit over the top.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a fine way for Weston Playhouse to finish its current season and the production will please anyone looking to engage their intellect.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs through Sept. 3 at the Weston Playhouse on the Village Green, 12 Park St., Weston. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees at 2 p.m. on Wednesday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Click here for tickets and information or call 802-824-5288

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About the Author: After 30 years as a theater critic and arts editor for a Connecticut daily newspaper, David Lampe-Wilson transplanted to Vermont with his wife and two cats.

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