Friday, February 13, 2015

Long Day's Journey Into Night: Considerations on Darkness

That's Eugene O'Neill in the 1936. He didn't write Long Day's Journey Into Night until 1941, and it wasn't published until 1956. It was his last great play, and most would argue, the greatest play he ever wrote: a tragic triumph of American realism.  O'Neill instructed that the play not be published until 25 years after his death (he died in 1953) but his wife used a legal loophole to circumvent these restrictions.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is an autobiographical piece. Well, at least it is emotionally autobiographical. The characters in the story are based around O'Neill's life. James is his father (a promising actor in his youth). Mary is his mother (a morphine addict). O'Neill is the embodiment of their children (he actually had to go to a sanitarium for tuberculosis, it's where he really started his play-writing). In Long Day's Journey Into Night, O'Neill was writing his life. He was exorcising his demons onto a page and presenting them to the world; while, at the same time, making sure he would never be around to view the results. 

The question I have is... why? 

Why did O'Neill write it, and why should you, or any audience, see this on-stage diary of one man's broken family? What is the purpose? In my interviews with the cast of this show I asked them all the same question: what is the benefit of presenting such a dark, challenging piece? It's painful, it's brutal, it's depressing, it's long (full disclosure, the show runs over three hours). What's the point?

I think O'Neill's reasons and the audience's reasons go hand in hand. I believe O'Neill wrote this play as a form of closure for himself. The tragedy of this story is that the family refuses to engage with the things that destroy them. Closure, true closure only comes from facing the things in our life that hurt us. You have to walk through the darkness to reach the light. A show like Long Day's Journey Into Night forces us to consider all possible shades of existence, and engage with the shadows that lie just under the surface of our lives. We live in an imperfect world, it would be a lie to deny it, so we face it, every day, in our own ways, and are, I think, made better for it.

There's a term that's been used in the theatre (and the classroom) for over 2,000 years. It's called catharsis. You may have heard the term, vaguely defined, having to do with a mixture of pity and fear at the end of a play. The term has always bothered me. The standard definition has always been so incredibly unsatisfying. It wasn't until just recently, when I began considering Long Day's Journey Into Night, reading the play and looking through articles that I finally stumbled on, what I believe, is a much clearer meaning for this very old word.

Catharsis is the feeling of relief and release that comes after you make your way through the worst part of a painful experience.

A horrible separation. 
A destructive addiction
A depressive season. 
A loss of faith. 

It's that massive psychological moment when you suddenly realize that the beat goes on and you move forward into the world, hopefully tempered and strengthened by the experience. A piece of you may be broken, but the whole of you stands stronger than you did before. 

If something can't be a happy memory, it can be a lesson learned.

Theatre is a safe medium, the characters on-stage experience these painful moments, and you the viewer are invited to empathetically engage with them. At Threepenny, we don't believe that theatre can change the world, but we do believe that theatre can change a person. It can help them experience and consider things in new ways. I, personally, believe that the most important goal of the theatre is to make you feel. That is the purpose of a play like Long Day's Journey Into Night. O'Neill wrote from his gut. He was all about feeling. We hope that you will feel something, and that it will, in a small way, affect you.

We walk you into the darkness in a safe way. The show is long, but O'Neill designed it that way. The length allows for a full integration of the senses. As you fall into the play and your mind wanders your emotions will hopefully synch with the those of the characters.  Don't worry about catching every last little detail, don't stress, just let the show fall over you. If we've done our jobs you will feel what they feel. You will hope as they hope. You will fail as they fail, and, at the end, when you exit the theatre, perhaps you will have been affected and enriched, if only a little bit.

We'll have chocolate and wine waiting.

Thank you for reading. Long Day's Journey Into Night opens TONIGHT at 7PM at TheatreWorks. As always, it's set-your-own-admission with a suggested donation of $15 dollars. Hope to see you there.

Learning Never Ends

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Long Day's Journey Into Night: Bill Baker

Hello all, Threepenny is back in the month of February, presenting Eugene O'Neill's great American tragedy Long Day's Journey Into Night, opening THIS FRIDAY at TheatreWorks and running through February 22nd (no show on Valentine's Day). As always, the show is set-your-own-admission with a suggested ticket price of $15.

This week, we meet the parents: James and Mary Tyrone, and we are fortunate enough to feature two of the finest actors in Memphis performing with us in this show. This is their first time working with Threepenny and we are very excited to have them. For our last interview, we meet the patriarch of the Tyrone family, played by the outstanding Bill Baker.

Bill Baker - James

Welcome Bill. How long have you be involved in theatre in Memphis?

I've been involved in Memphis theatre for about forty years. Since I was in my twenties. When I started out I was doing stuff at Circuit Playhouse and they had a little attic theatre they had started for experimental work and I was working there, creating new things.

What are some past favorite roles?

I played Lenny Bruce in a play called Lenny. That was in the 70's and was a big one in my life. More recently, I played King Lear with New Moon ensemble. But very recently, the last play I did was an original adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland called Madhatted, where I played the White Rabbit, and that was a great deal of fun.

Who was that with?

That was with Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe, which is a theatre company I'm one of the founding directors of.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, what are your thoughts on this play?

I guess the big thing for me is that it's heavily literary, and I don't usually do that. At least I haven't in the last twenty years. Most of my work has been much more focused on experimental and improvisational work, sort of ensemble-created pieces, so those texts are played with a sort of free and loose mentality. But what I've come upon recently, doing Lear and now doing this, with this piece of great literature as your text, there's a certain sort of sacred quality to the language, and we have to respect it in a way that you don't have to when you're writing the piece as you go. So, it's this way of regarding the text that is so interesting. Even though it's very traditional and I worked that way when I was younger, it's very new to me again.

How are you connecting with the character of James?

I mean, I am a father, so I connect with him in that way. I connect with him in terms of feeling for one's children and feeling for one's spouse. Also, in my day job, I work with a lot of people who suffer from addiction, so I connect to the struggle that he has with his wife, who is a morphine addict, and I can empathize with how he feels. I also grew up in a household where alcohol was a regular part of the world, and that's a big part of Tyrone's life, so I think the dysfunction of the family is just as much a result of alcoholism as it is of morphine addiction, so I can also relate to the way substances can alter the family dynamic.

And what do you do during the day?

I'm a psychotherapist. I work with people with both severe persistent mental illnesses and also with substance abuse issues.

What is it like working with this cast?

Oh, it's great. They're all so talented. I worked with both Dylan and Christina on King Lear, so it was nice picking up that relation, but Gabe and Jillian are great as well. Gabe and I have this long, interesting scene together that sort of comes near the end of the play and it is really a pleasure to play that.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is a very dark play, darker than a lot of shows Memphis audiences are used to. What do you think are the merits of putting on a show like this?

Well, the darkness is about something that is very much a present problem in our culture, which is addiction. The show is fashioned as a tragedy. Although no one dies, we see that they are all sort of going down in flames in their substance abuse. We are a chemically dependent society, you know, and it is a tragedy, and we see it over and over again. People allow the drugs in their lives to just pull them down. So, if the Aristotelian theory of catharsis is something that is healthy for us as a culture, which is somewhat debatable, it may be interesting to see if a few people who may be struggling with these problems themselves may end up being enlightened or purified by the experience of seeing the tragedy of this family.

Any last words to audiences coming to see Long Day's Journey Into Night?

Uhm, come sober *laughs*. And prepare to be sobered, I think. And be persistent, stick it out. It is long and it is demanding, but it is definitely worth it, so come with yourself ready to make a long day's journey into night.

Thank you, Bill. This concludes our interviews for this show. Check back a little later this week, when I take a stab at the darkness that seems to pervade this classic work and try to convince you, my beloved reader to join us this weekend.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Long Day's Journey Into Night: Christina Wellford Scott

Hello all, Threepenny is back in the month of February, presenting Eugene O'Neill's great American tragedy Long Day's Journey Into Night, opening THIS FRIDAY at TheatreWorks and running through February 22nd (no show on Valentine's Day). As always, the show is set-your-own-admission with a suggested ticket price of $15.

This week, we meet the parents: Mary and James Tyrone, and we are fortunate enough to feature two of the finest actors in Memphis, performing with us in this show. This is their first time working with Threepenny and we are very excited to have them. Today we interview our leading lady. She's been a part of the Memphis theatre scene for over 30 years, having performed on almost every stage in town, picking up numerous Ostrander awards and nominations along the way. Her name is Christina Wellford Scott.

Christina Wellford Scott - Mary

Hello, what's your name and who are you playing?

My name is Christina Wellford Scott, and I'm playing Mary Tyrone.

How long have you been involved with theatre in the city of Memphis?

Oh, a long time, thirty-plus years I would say.

What was your first show?

Well, my first show, I was in the chorus of Carousel for Front Street Music Theatre. They performed at Lausanne, directed by George Touliatos, who was my first acting teacher. That was in 1972. Though before that I did play Teddy Wewon in the fourth grade play *laughs*.

Long Day's Journey Into Night, what are your thoughts on the play?

It's a beautiful, magnificent play and it demands a lot of everybody involved. It's a privilege to be in it.

What are some of the challenges you've faced working on the show and portraying the character of Mary?

I think the biggest challenge has been finding the time to let it all settle in. It's such a mammoth work, and I feel the pressure of trying to find all the things Mary could be, and hoping to get to what I envision for the character.

Now, I have it from a very reliable source that you do, in fact, have children. How does that affect your portrayal of Mary?

I think it helps me, emotionally, to understand a lot of her fears and anxieties. I don't know how I would look at the character if I weren't a mother of four. I couldn't even imagine what that's like because I've been a mother for so long.

What's it like working with your fellow cast-mates?

Wonderful. They're all wonderful, and we have a great director. I couldn't be happier with the cast and crew and director. It's just wonderful.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is a very dark play, darker than a lot of shows Memphis audiences are used to. What do you think are the merits of putting on a show like this?

I think it's such a profound play, and I don't think every part of it is dark, but I believe it speaks to a very important place in the human experience, in the same way that Lear does, or Hamlet, or any play that has a dark subject. This is a great play. This is a GREAT play. It's not a melodrama. It's a profound piece that ennobles people who watch it and share in the experience, I think. That's what I hope for.

Any last words?

God help me and the Blessed Virgin *laughs*

Thanks, Christina. Our final interview is coming soon. Long Day's Journey Into Night opens THIS FRIDAY, February 6th, and runs until the 22nd. There is no show on Valentine's Day (Saturday the 14th), but there is a show on MONDAY, FEBRUARY 16th! We hope to see you all there.