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The Guthrie’s Long Day’s Journey

In one of his lesser works, Ernest Hemingway famously observed that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Not true, but true enough, and I think the same might be said of modern American theater with respect to one play by Eugene O’Neill called Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Written by O’Neill in 1941-42, but not published until 1956, after his death, the play comes straight out of O’Neill’s painful family life.

It is an incredibly influential play. I hear it in the work of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and David Mamet, as well as in the best work of lesser playwrights such as Frank Gilroy in The Subject Was Roses and Tracy Letts in August: Osage County. O’Neill showed a lot of American playwrights how to put home truths up on stage.

Long Day’s Journey is a play that runs four hours in production. I have previously seen it only in the 1962 film version, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring Katharine Hepburn and Jason Robards, and the 1987 television production, directed by Jonathan Miller, starring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey. The 1987 television production can be seen in its entirety here on YouTube.

Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater is now running an accomplished production of Long Day’s Journey, directed by Joe Dowling, through February 23. We saw it with friends on January 19, the week after it had opened. I loved it. If you haven’t seen it live before, this is a great opportunity to do so and, if you live in the vicinity of Minneapolis, it might even be worth a special trip.

Rohan Preston has reviewed the production for the Star Tribune. My favorite reviewer, the Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, will not be taking it in, perhaps because of his reasonable reservations about the play. If he were to give the Guthrie production a look, I think he might note the following.

The Guthrie production compresses the text and has the actors talking over each other (extremely effectively) to achieve a streamlined running time of three hours. The production performs a service to the play in doing so. The cast is good and Helen Carey, as Mary Guthrie, stands out with a luminous portrait of a tortured soul. Dowling has brilliantly staged the play to put the rest of the family in motion revolving in orbit around her. She dominates the production. Indeed, it is worth seeing if only for her performance, but there is much more on offer here for anyone interested in the play.

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