In some productions, Long Day's Journey Into Night really can take just about all day. Not the version onstage at Kansas City Actors Theatre. This second in KCAT's "Classic American Summer," directed by John Rensenhouse, dispenses Acts 1 and 2 in just an hour before adjourning for intermission. Trimming what many consider Eugene O'Neill's masterwork (which won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize) doesn't have to be sacrilege or feel rushed, though, and this abridgment of the four-act script keeps the play's mood intact.
We still understand how the Tyrone family has come to this place, enduring a drawn-out and, for them, unfortunately typical day in August 1912. The second half of this staging runs an absorbing 95 minutes, allowing us to observe — and be touched by — this household's tangle of dysfunction and sorrow. In their summer home on the Connecticut shore, they will face accusations, resentments, regrets and misunderstandings, but also love.
James Tyrone is a once-famous actor who has always traveled for work. The excellent Paul Vincent O'Connor exposes the patriarch's layers in a subtle, seemingly effortless performance, eliciting compassion for a husband and father formed by his past and his imperfections.
James' wife, Mary (effectively portrayed by Merle Moores), retreats to a long-ago past to hide from a family history she can't or won't face. There's no Thanks for the memories here. "The past is the present, isn't it?" she wonders. "It's the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won't let us." Her way out: a morphine fog that "hides you from the world and the world from you." In the process, Mary manages to both dominate this day and dismiss her loved ones.
Elder son Jamie (the talented Brian Paulette) is an actor like his father, but alcohol and bad behavior have rendered him unsuccessful. Paulette's understated portrayal brings a strong presence to a man beset by drink, paternal expectations and sibling rivalry. "I love you more than I hate you," he tells his brother, Edmund, in a whiskey-drenched family confab where even liquor can't black out the pain.
Edmund, the younger son (Doogin Brown), is O'Neill's alter ego in this, his most autobiographical work. (According to Arthur and Martha Gelb's O'Neill, the playwright was working here to "forgive his family and himself.") He's a well-educated, well-read 24-year-old whose illness preoccupies the rest of the family. The skillful Brown focuses our attention with a perceptive, quiet and intelligent portrait.
The flowing whiskey plays nearly as big a role as the period dress (by Genevieve V. Beller), the family home (set by Jim Misenheimer), and the changing light of day (by Douglas Macur). We almost want to pour a glass, too (as does Jessica Franz, very good as the maid, Cathleen).
As booze looses the play's dialogue, Long Day's nonaction plays out across arias of recrimination and apology. O'Neill's words make their own kind of melody; Rensenhouse has occasionally incorporated background music (composed by Greg Mackender), but it sometimes distracts.
But we never take our eyes off the Tyrones and their long day. O'Neill's play went unpublished until after his death, in the 1950s, and it continues to age, burn and go down well.