'Long Day's Journey': The American soul, in darkness

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“Long Day’s Journey into Night” stars (from left) E. Ashley Izard, James Davis, Josh Carpenter, and Paul Hebron, through Oct. 22.

In the Tyrone family, everyone knows, denies, and is trying to hide terrible secrets from one another. Nobody admits it, but each has been destroyed, years past. Each has lost soul, self, in ways personal, singular, and quintessentially American.

The Quintessence Theater Group is giving a good account of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, through Oct. 22. This autobiographical family tragedy is hard to do well — four hours of theater, self-indulgent, hairy, and repetitious. But under the direction of Alexander Burns, an able cast makes it happen. E. Ashley Izard gives a blistering, shattering performance as materfamilias Mary Tyrone, whose spiral into madness and addiction is pulling all down with her.

Izard alone makes this show worth seeing. In her terrifying, morphine-driven soliloquy in Act 3, Izard-as-Mary becomes by turns teenager, raging shrike, newlywed, bitter nag, and arthritic crone, all via her mobile face, fingers, and eyes. It’s a play within the play.

Quintessence specializes in classics done in an intimate space. Here, that approach really works. The spare set, designed by Burns, follows the exact dimensions of the living room at the O’Neill family summer home, Monte Cristo, in New London, Conn., and the claustrophobia is palpable. No escape, indeed.

The three male leads allow their characters to gather momentum. Paul Hebron as father James, ruined by success, terrified of poverty, is both a brilliant man and a weakling. Hebron clinches it with stage business, drunkenly playing cards alone by a single lamp.

I wasn’t sure how effective James Davis would be as doomed, sweaty, whiny son Edmund, but in the endless, epic fourth act, he brings off the play’s one glimpse of ecstatic union with life, making it sing for a moment before darkness. As son Jamie, Josh Carpenter is fine and swaggering at first, inferior and knowing it, but O’Neill gives him a nearly impossible task: coming on in Act 4 after we’ve already sat through a 45-minute whiskey binge/family fight. (It’s a weakness in a classic play full of weaknesses.) Still, that reappearance could have been directed with more restraint: Jamie should be soused, but I’d go easier on the sloppy-drunk thing. His appalling, self-undercutting message has to cut deep, unsmeared, ungroaned.

These four compel us all the way through this labyrinth. Many actors were in the audience, and they stood and applauded, for good reason. In his Playbill notes, director Burns declares he sees hope in this play, in that somehow, Nobelist Eugene O’Neill arose from such beginnings. Fair enough. And granted, real poetry and love do flash among the Tyrones. Hope, though? As a son from an Irish American family in which Catholicism rhymes with alcoholism, I find hope here, to use a kind word, fugitive. Whatever family I was from, though, I’d go see this good production, not for affirmation or light, but for its message about you, me, our families, our history. Somehow, despite the thrashing, the wandering, much of Long Day’s Journey Into Night strikes home: Sloppy, full of excess, it nevertheless transfixes the American soul with a pin through the heart.

Long Day's Journey into Night. Through Oct. 22 at the Quintessence Theatre Group, Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. Tickets:

$30 weekdays; $35 weekends; $15 students.

 

. Information: 215-987-4450, quintessencetheatre.org.