Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Long Day's Journey into Night
Court Theatre
Review by John Olson

Also see John's recent reviews of Matilda the Musical and The Matchmaker

Michael Doonan and Harris Yulin
Photo by Michael Brosilow
The great plays deserve great casts. The last major Chicago production of O'Neill's magnum opus was the Goodman's in 2002. That production directed by Robert Falls was remounted on Broadway a year later with Brian Dennehy again playing James Tyrone but with new co-stars including no less than Vanessa Redgrave as Mary, Robert Sean Leonard as Edmund, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Jamie. In a few weeks a new production by the Roundabout Theatre Company will open on Broadway starring Gabriel Byrne, Jessica Lange, John Gallagher Jr, and Michael Shannon. A production by a major regional non-profit will have to compete against the memories of the former and the expectation of the latter. The Court's production, running through April 10, has made some very smart and refreshing choices in their cast and director that make this a "long lay's journey" to be taken.

The memory of Dennehy's James looms large in mind (I saw the Broadway production, though not the Goodman's original). For the Court's production, director David Auburn (author of Proof) has made a fascinating choice in casting the veteran character actor Harris Yulin as James. Without quite the physical presence of a Dennehy, we don't immediately see the image of the larger-than-life actor that is James Tyrone. A character based on O'Neill's father, James Tyrone is an actor who has enjoyed years of popularity playing The Count of Monte Cristo, and we must imagine that James was a commanding stage presence. In Yulin's take on the role, James is not a giant to be taken down. We see he's already fallen. Upon realizing his wife Mary has renewed an active addiction to morphine after a hospitalization and brief recovery, this James is defeated. Though at points he tries to regain his pride and to justify some of his actions, particularly his miserliness, he seems a weakened man from the get-go, and as such a more vulnerable and sympathetic one, making this a more balanced look at the four members of the Tyrone family than many have seen before.

Chicago actress Mary Beth Fisher might also be considered unexpected casting as Mary Tyrone. Her track record on Chicago stages certainly qualifies her for this demanding role, but she typically plays younger, more energetic characters than Mary. Aged via a grey wig, Fisher is a livelier, more alert addict who floats in and out of lucidity as her character gradually succumbs to her morphine-induced state over the course of the play's 16 hours.

As the autobiographical play's surrogate for O'Neill, Michael Doonan makes an impressive debut in a major role on a major Chicago stage. His Edmund is a stronger person than we might expect. Though the youngest member of the family, Edmund is ready to challenge his parents and older brother on their delusions. In spite of an increasing physical weakness resulting from "consumption" (tuberculosis), Edmund's spirit is strong and we have the sense he'll survive, as did O'Neill. Dan Waller as older brother Jamie suggests none of the strength of either James or Edmund. Waller and Auburn's take on the character seems to say that Jamie is rather unremarkable, and knows it—losing himself to alcohol and the company of prostitutes as consolation. As the Irish maid Cathleen, Alanna Rogers provides much needed comic relief to the proceedings.

Jack Magaw's setting of the Tyrone summer home ingeniously balances the real and the theatrical. The sitting room is decorated realistically, but portions of the wall are scrim, allowing us to see action on the stairs and in the hallways that is critical to the story. It also adds to the sense that this is a memory play—but one of vivid memories, thanks also to the detailed period costumes by Melissa Torchia. Lee Keenan's lighting perfectly defines the times of day so critical to the story and the play's increasingly dark mood.

If Auburn's take on Long Day's Journey into Night is less grand (or grandiose) than others before it, it feels more real and relatable. O'Neill's 70-year-old script feels contemporary, even though its story is set in 1912. Auburn's cast plays it relatively low-key, and while the big moments still have their impact, there's no sense that they're trying to live up to the demands of a classic—they're playing it honestly and totally in service of the characters.

Long Day's Journey into Night will play the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Avenue on the University of Chicago campus, through April 10, 2016. Tickets are available online at or by phone at 773-753-4472 or at the box office.

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