CARBONDALE - When we watch "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Eugene O'Neill's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterwork, first published in 1956, we are seeing real people.
The Tyrone family of the drama is based, not loosely, on O'Neill's family: James Tyrone, an aging actor whose career was identified largely with one role, was a doppelgänger for O'Neill's father, James, who appeared onstage in the title role in "The Count of Monte Cristo" some 6,000 times. The real-life names of O'Neill and his brother Edmund are reversed in the play, but the Edmund of "Long Day's Journey" shares many of the playwright's salient traits: depression and alcoholism, a bout with tuberculosis, an interest in writing.
The play is set in 1912 in a Connecticut summer home, an accurate reflection of the O'Neill family's actual circumstances. The autobiographical nature of the story is so specific that O'Neill left formal instructions that the drama could not be published until after his death - 25 years after, in fact. (O'Neill's widow circumvented that restriction by transferring the rights to the play to Yale University.)
"It's really about his family. Literally, explicitly, the details," said Lon Winston, director of the Thunder River Theatre Company's current production of "Long Day's Journey" in Carbondale. "It is his mother and father and the siblings and himself."
Winston thought it fitting to add another layer of real people to his version. Winston, the executive artistic director of Thunder River, has given the production a full 360-degree in-the-round staging, making the cozy Thunder River Theatre even more intimate. Audience members have in sight not only the stage and actors, but their fellow theatergoers as well.
"That's a conscious choice," Winston, who typically stages Thunder River productions in three-quarter round fashion. "You're not only watching the play; you see the audience through the play. You see what they're going through; you get a sense of the effect the play has on an audience. It's like watching two plays at once."
For Winston, who founded Thunder River in 1995, this represents a meaningful departure from the more common theater experience, where all audience members are looking at the stage from the same direction. "Usually it's dark, a proscenium, you're alone," he said. "This is different. It's like 3-D chess - it's happening all around you. There is a dynamic, connecting everyone to these emotions. Everyone is aware of one another; the emotion is palpable."
The presence of cast member Valerie Haugen adds a third tier of real-person quality to the production. Haugen, Thunder River's associate artistic director, is the company's most regular actor, portraying such iconic characters as Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?" and Emily Dickinson in the one-woman play "The Belle of Amherst." She has long had her eye on Mary Tyrone, the delusional, morphine-addicted mother of "Long Day's Journey." But Haugen and Winston bided their time, waiting till the role was appropriate to Haugen's age. Now 51, she believes she makes a credible Mary.
"There's not an actress in American theater, or English theater, who hasn't wanted to get their hands on Mary Tyrone. She's a biggie, a handful," Haugen said, noting that Katherine Hepburn, Jessica Lange and Vanessa Redgrave have all played the part. "You can see her go from being in control of herself to drifting into madness. It's one of the great women's roles in theater."
Starring alongside Haugen are Owen O'Farrell as James, Nick Garay as Edmund, David Pulliam as the older son Jamie, and Jennica Deely as the maid Cathleen. The show opened last weekend, and plays Friday through Sunday, with additional performances through March 9.
With O'Neill, whose work dealt with family turmoil and personal disillusions, the emotions are almost always visceral, and never more so than with "Long Day's Journey." The characters - three alcoholics and one morphine addict - bicker and drink and berate as they reveal their resentments and delusions. Perhaps even more of a burden than their addictions is their past: the death of a family member, career choices, the more prosperous years they had experienced years ago.
"These people cannot break loose from the past," Winston said. "They see they have past resentments they cannot let go of. And if you can't forget the past, you can't enjoy this moment."
Winston has no doubt that the hundreds of companies that continue to present "Long Day's Journey" aren't merely revisiting a past. Though the characters have been pulled straight from O'Neill's own living room, Winston doesn't see the play as autobiography.
"I'm not interested in duplicating history or duplicating realism onstage," he said. "We have a responsibility to the theater to open up the past so we can look at it, find the metaphors, find ways of coming to the audience so they understand it's as much about them, not about history. It's got to touch us now to make it relevant.
"You can't watch the play and not recognize somebody. Even if it's just a moment. Much as we'd like to think our own families are wonderful, it pushes these buttons."
"Bitterness. Resentments," Haugen said, finishing the thought.
But when an audience member looks across the theater at the rest of the crowd, he won't necessarily see anguish on those faces. The emotional landscape of "Long Day's Journey" is rough, but not brutal.
"Ultimately, it's a love story. Because even in their darkest moments, they don't leave each other. They're there. They're going to wake up in the morning and hopefully start over."
O'Neill "wrote a very fair and forgiving play about his family," Haugen added. "He needed to write the play to come to terms with his own demons. He treats everyone with such love and fairness. There are no bad guys. It must have been very good for his soul to write this."