Familial dysfunction and tales of addiction reign supreme on two Dallas stages currently. I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, a 2015 two-hander at Kitchen Dog Theater, owes a lot to Long Day's Journey Into Night, the classic Eugene O'Neill play at Undermain Theatre. Similarly, both plays feature star turns by their lead actors. Barry Nash sends you to hell and back as the playwright father in I'm Gonna Pray, while Joanna Schellenberg drags you down to the darkest depths in an engrossing performance as Mary Tyrone, one of the stage's most challenging roles.
Directed by Katherine Owens, Long Day's Journey moves quickly for a three-hour play with two intermissions. Laughter swiftly gives way to offense, then to anger, then to silence. These characters are psychological studies in depression and addiction, every one. This family clutches to one another with an uncomfortably strong grip. O'Neill, for whom much of the play was autobiographical, penned Long Day's Journey in 1941, but at his bidding he never saw this play performed. It wouldn't premiere until 1956, three years after he died. The play, dark for the 1950s, remains a staggeringly deep dive into a family trapped by what might've been.
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At the center of the play is the matriarch, Mary Tyrone, whose depression casts a shadow over her husband, James Tyrone (an excellent Bruce DuBose), and her two sons, Jamie (Shelby Davenport) and Edmund (Josh Blann). In set designer John Arnone's rendering there is a literal fog visible just beyond the living room, which seems to grow thicker with each of Mary's retreats into a morphine haze. And in what is likely to be one of the best performances this year, Schellenberg seems to actually grow more fragile each time she enters the room, her eyes increasingly empty and her presence more detached and yet, somehow, also more manic. It's quite a thing to watch.
Revisiting a classic play like Long Day's Journey might seem an odd choice in 2016, but O'Neill is part of Dallas' lineage — this play, particularly. Produced here for the first time 20 years ago by Dallas Theater Center, it's rarely seen onstage but Undermain loves plays that shake the foundation of theater, which is precisely what Long Day's Journey did, and perhaps, still does.
Here, the American dream is trapped and the dreamers are dying every day of their lives. They seek refuge in books, poetry, memories or in morphine or booze. And just as they are lulled into a numbness, the play does the same to its audience. It pulls you into the world of the Tyrones — a dark, violent, but well-intentioned place — and rattles you around, then sends you out into the dark night. This is a great production of a classic play to check off your list, a small relief on your long journey through this ever darkening life.
Long Day's Journey Into Night continues through March 6. More at undermain.org.