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Forgiving The Dead: Oregon Shakespeare Festival Transforms Dark Drama

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Jenny Graham
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Edmund (Danforth Comins) and Jamie (Jonathan Haugen) find themselves in an all too familiar position.

The OSF production of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey into Night starts with a special moment. In the meticulously realistic living room of a summer house, an older couple form a picture of playful affection. A young man enters, studies them, then retreats. With this hint of a distancing frame around the action to follow, director Christopher Liam Moore moves to transform an inexorably dark drama into a cathartic memory play.

What makes the production in the Thomas Theatre so riveting is the thorough commitment of the splendid actors to this tortured world.

For the man observing his parents is their youngest son Edmund, the stand-in for O’Neill himself. He will soon reappear in a dining alcove joking with his brother Jamie, and the dramatic rendering of a crucial day in the life of the Tyrone family will begin. This is the day when they receive the diagnosis of Edmund’s chronic cough, which they’ve all been dismissing as a lingering cold. This day also marks two months since his mother Mary returned home from the sanatorium where she was sent, not for the first time, to recover from her morphine addiction. The air crackles with apprehension, blame, and its flip-side, shame. By the end of Act One, Mary has deflected Edmund’s clumsy attempts to avert her relapse and disappeared upstairs to take a “nap.”

As day advances into night, father and sons take up their habitual drinking, and with the drug-addled Mary, sink into the familiar quicksand of the past. Their perpetual search seems to be for the cause of their misery, an event or a person to blame it on. Edmund’s difficult birth, for example, introduced Mary to opiates, but her lack of will power caused addiction. From there, recriminations shift to the hotel doctor who first prescribed the drugs, then to the miserly Tyrone for engaging a cheap quack. In fact, Tyrone does emerge as the prime destroyer—his penny-pinching is only one instance of the self-absorption that led to his adoring neglect of his young, sheltered wife. Yet blame won’t land firmly on him, once his horrific, impoverished childhood is factored in.

The Tyrone family system lacks the component of personal responsibility, a place where bucks can stop, where a downward spiral can be reversed. Its collective resignation is perhaps best expressed by Mary: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and...make you do other things...until you’ve lost your true self forever.” From this belief springs Mary’s corollary, “The past is the present.... It’s the future too.”

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Credit Jenny Graham
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Mary Tyrone (Judith-Marie Bergan, front) and her second girl Cathleen (Autumn Buck) take in the foggy night in the OSF production of Long Days Journey Into Night.

Given the Tyrone’s persistent dysfunction, the vicious circles of their interaction, why do we invest in them? Partly because O’Neill’s characters mirror the problems that plague all nuclear families to some degree. In the privacy of the home, the happy, functional public masks comes off, revealing blurred boundaries and infantile expectations. An authoritarian father still smothers his adult sons with his own sense of failure. The mother, rather than embodying the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house,” becomes a “dope fiend.” All the more poignant is her repeated lament for the “decent” home her husband’s itinerant career in the theatre has denied her, a place where “one is never lonely.”

What makes the production in the Thomas Theatre so riveting is the thorough commitment of the splendid actors to this tortured world. Judith Marie Bergan’s brilliantly nuanced Mary illuminates all corners of the emotional map as she evades the massive needs of her husband and sons who would turn her into a surrogate Virgin Mary, a wished-for font of consolation, even redemption. Her exquisite blue-and-white gown of the opening scene almost glows against their shabby browns. But the blue bodice and overskirt fall away, just as did the faith that protected her when she graduated from her convent into marriage. She’s lost to morphine now, except for the few heart-wrenching instances when Tyrone cajoles her with a compliment or an embrace: Mary emerges almost miraculously from her fog with the radiant smile of someone found.

Michael Winters’s Tyrone seems disillusioned from the start. The charisma of a dominant male who happens also to be renowned actor has already been eroded by disappointment with his wife. We can only guess at the former power that holds his sons in his orbit. Jonathan Haugen as Jamie conveys the strangled frustration of one whose attempts to help always make everything worse. He’s trapped in the double-bind of the first-born son—the one who’s expected to fill his father’s shoes but is shot down if he appears to succeed.

Danforth Comins’s Edmund is accustomed to flying under the radar, out of range of his father’s scorn, muffling his own outbursts of disgust. With his consumptive pallor, he haunts the scenes like the ghost he almost is in Moore’s production—a ghost from the future, the playwright’s alter ego, assessing the action in retrospect. Edmund’s opening moment as witness spawns later instances of watchful detachment, and Christopher Acebo’s set betrays the subtle distortion of a memory play. Looming over its realistic furniture, a tree trunk anchors a luminous staircase long enough to lead to heaven, while a detached branch of this family’s tree hangs apart.

Forgiving and forgetting aren’t really options in a house where denial rules. Although the Tyrones keep urging forgetting, they hang onto affronts and cannot manage real forgiveness. Edmund becomes the exception: as a nascent writer, he understands that “the right way is to remember.” As O’Neill himself, he has returned to this painful day in his life, and seen it steadily and whole. When Edmund collapses at the end in paroxysms of grief, the effect is cathartic; he’s letting go of the wounds of a lifetime, enabling the peace of forgiveness.

Molly Tinsley taught literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy for twenty years. Her latest book is the spy thriller Broken Angels (www.fuzepublishing.com)

In an episode of sanity, Molly Tinsley decided twenty years of teaching literature and creative writing at the U. S. Naval Academy was enough. She resigned from the faculty, moved west, and now writes full-time in Ashland and Portland. She crafts the Theatre and the Arts column for the Jefferson Journal magazine.