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Howard Sherman: No Long Day’s Journey Into Night set has yet to capture Eugene O’Neill’s real-life cottage

The iconic Long Day's Journey Into Night room inside the Monte Cristo Cottage. Photo: Isaak Berliner/Eugene O'Neill Theater Center The iconic Long Day's Journey Into Night room inside the Monte Cristo Cottage. Photo: Isaak Berliner/Eugene O'Neill Theater Center
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It is not unusual, I suspect, for theatregoers to imagine themselves living inside the homes that are created on stage. Regardless of the period, a particularly realistic interior – especially an elegant one – can inspire a wave of applause upon the raising of a curtain, even perhaps a murmur of envy from those who will return to less striking surroundings.

Yet, few are likely to have such a reaction upon seeing a production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. No matter how beautifully the Tyrone family home is rendered, the veil of gloom that pervades the play and its environment means patrons are unlikely to take interior decorating tips away with them.

I don’t need to imagine what being inside the Tyrones’ home is like. I cannot see Long Day’s Journey without thinking of the actual Monte Cristo Cottage in New London Connecticut, the real-life summer home of James and Mary O’Neill, the parents of playwright Eugene. This is because for several years I was in and out of it frequently, with my own key and alarm code.

The cottage belongs to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in adjacent Waterford, Connecticut, an educational and developmental centre for all manner of theatre. The works developed there have included August Wilson’s Fences and The Piano Lesson, the musicals Avenue Q, Nine, and In the Heights, and Jennifer Haley’s The Nether. From 2000 to 2003, I was the O’Neills’ executive director, which afforded me access to the cottage.

As I’ve tended to see Long Day’s Journey in prosceniums with widths of 20ft, 25ft, 30ft or more – and sometimes greater heights – the Tyrone’s home always seems quite grand. Even though the play is set in a single room, there are suggestions of the mansion beyond, fostered often by a staircase of significance.

Rob Howell’s design for the Bristol Old Vic production, currently in New York at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for a short run, is translucent, transparent, and soaring. It has a swirl of colours beyond the main playing area that suggest the sea and sky, as well as the psychological maelstrom of which the family’s living room is the centre. It is evocative of the grandeur that has held true for so many productions I’ve seen, including several on Broadway and in regional theatre.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night review at the Bristol Old Vic – ‘first-class’

But in the actual house where the O’Neills spent their summers, the living room is 14ft by 16ft of floor space, with an average ceiling height. While windows make it bright in the daytime, at night it is cozy verging on the claustrophobic. The room is actually an addition, assembled from a small store that was on the property when James purchased it.

Beyond the living room, the cottage has only a few rooms on each floor and the bedrooms – with walls of just seven feet – are oppressive in their compression. It is said that James had the first-floor ceilings raised to give a sense of grandness for any visitors, but in doing so reduced the size of the sleeping quarters where the family might take their only refuge.

While Long Day’s Journey is not a precise family history, it holds strong parallels with Eugene’s own youth. Still on misty days, the foghorn in New London harbour can be heard droning, as in the play, even if the cottage now looks across to a nuclear submarine factory.

The front of the Monte Cristo Cottage. Photo: Isaak Berliner/Eugene O’Neill Theater Center

When characters speak about hearing Mary moving about upstairs, tracking her actions from below, it is not hard to imagine such a thing in the original house, sufficiently small and creaky that almost every sound can be heard everywhere else.

I, of course, did not know the O’Neills and I have an ever-changing understanding of the Tyrones with each production. But I have known the great play’s sixth character, the Monte Cristo Cottage – I would occasionally sit in the family room when I needed particular quiet in which to read or write – and I’ve not yet seen it realised in anything approaching its true dimension – though Ben Edwards’ set for a 1988 Yale Repertory Theatre production came closest, while including more of the house’s interior than is usually seen (Ah, Wilderness, set in the same house, was performed in rep).

This is no slight on any of the great directors and designers who have interpreted O’Neill’s text according to the demands of the spaces in which they work. It’s just one aspect of the play, and its history, which doesn’t always come through in the playing, is known only to those who have made a pilgrimage to New London, as others travel to Elsinore. And certainly the play’s emotions are expansive.

It would be difficult to assemble the luminous casts that Long Day’s Journey often attracts were it to be played in a small studio. I’ve seen Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst, Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange, and Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave, among others, as James and Mary.

Having written about theatrical productions that benefit from grand scale, such as those seen at the Park Avenue Armory and St Ann’s Warehouse, I can’t help but hope to one day see actors of the calibre of Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons, take on Long Day’s Journey in close, cramped quarters, replicating the intimate crucible that held so much pain, yet proved so formative for America’s first great playwright.

This week in US theatre

One of America’s finest veteran actresses, Lois Smith, continues her remarkable run of Off-Broadway work in the new play Peace for Mary Frances, by Lily Thorne. It is the story of a matriarch ready for death, who watches her multi-generational family debate her – and their – legacies. The production from the New Group also features J Smith-Cameron and Johanna Day, directed by Lila Neugebauer, opening Wednesday.

Susan Stroman directs and choreographs the new dance musical The Beast in the Jungle, based on the Henry James novella, with music by John Kander and a book by David Thompson, making it a reunion of many of the talents behind The Scottsboro Boys. It opens Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, New York on Wednesday.

The music of Alanis Morissette is the latest song catalogue to find its way to the stage, with Jagged Little Pill. The book is by screenwriter Diablo Cody and it premieres on Thursday at Massachusetts’ American Repertory Theatre. The company’s artistic director Diane Paulus, who has previously shepherded Pippin and Waitress to Broadway, directs.

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