Monday, February 27, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
27 FEB 2012
Pictured: Gregory Prest, Evan Buliung
TORONTO - It’s the golden rule of decanting: The wine you’ve begun should never make you regret the wine you’ve finished. It’s a pretty good rule for serving up theatre too, albeit one that seems to have eluded Soulpepper’s artistic director Albert Schultz who, in the week just passed, has served up a pair of productions that only serve to make one relish the memory of earlier productions of the same plays.
The first — a resoundingly adequate production of High Life that transformed Lee MacDougall’s acclaimed black comedy from the roller coaster thrill ride it was in its première into a sedate ride on the merry-go-round. Now, he’s followed it with a lacklustre production of Eugene O’Neill’s classic LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT that simply can’t hold a candle to the Stratford Festival’s acclaimed mid-’90s version of the same play, despite the fact that, in Diana Leblanc, the two productions share the same director. Like High Life, JOURNEY opened last week at the Young Centre, where the two plays will run in rep through the end of March.
This is a high-powered cast, at least in the Soulpepper definition, featuring real-life husband and wife (and Soulpepper founding members) Joseph Ziegler and Nancy Palk as James and Mary Tyrone. As their grown sons, Soulpepper rising star Gregory Prest plays the ailing Edmund, while Evan Buliung drops by to essay the role of the drunken Jamie. Krystin Pellerin, another Soulpepper regular, plays the long-suffering Tyrone maid, Cathleen.
As the title implies, the action here takes place over a single day, played out in the family’s ramshackle seaside summer home, where they have been recently and cautiously celebrating the matriarch’s recovery from morphine addiction. But their new-found peace is threatened by Edmund’s ill-health and a cough that can simply no longer be dismissed as a summer cold. Meanwhile, the patriarch, a fading lion of the stage, and his eldest son Jamie bicker, their rage fueled by the whiskey which they all so freely imbibe. As the lazy summer day swings out of control, old hurts, family secrets and tragic memories are aired, yet again.
Working on a superb set created by Peter Hartwell and lit by Steven Hawkins, Leblanc gets things off to a fine start as her cast claims its territory with assurance — but sadly, it doesn’t last as O’Neill’s timeless dialogue is drowned out, sometimes by sloppy diction, more often by the sound of square pegs being driven into round holes.
Off the top, while all these roles demand great actors, it simply doesn’t follow that all great actors are suited to them. For all his considerable talent, Ziegler is not right for the part of James, while Palk fails to plumb the true tragedy of Mary, content instead to recycle her jonquil scene from The Glass Menagerie. Buliung and Prest fare little better, with Prest looking far too healthy for a consumptive and Buliung stumbling into the abyss that separates playing drunk from playing a drunk.
For all its problems, Leblanc still makes it all work after a fashion and in the end, O’Neill and his masterwork carry the day. But while comparisons are indeed often odious, in cases like this they are also inevitable. And, having found nothing new to replace it, one can’t help but miss the sense of discipline and New England familial constraint that made Leblanc’s earlier production so transcendent. Despite what Thomas Wolfe had to say, perhaps it is true that you can go home again. But as this production proves — just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.