LDJ Review by Steve Barnes

Devastating ‘Long Day’s Journey’ at Bridge Street Theatre

Steve Barnes
Nov. 12, 2021

CATSKILL — A wraith in the form of Roxanne Fay haunts the utterly absorbing, emotionally walloping “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at Bridge Street Theatre.

Even in a production as impeccably acted as this one — where thousands of perfect individual moments, glances, facial expressions, line deliveries and silences among the five-member cast combine over three hours to monumental cumulative effect — Fay stands out as Mary Tyrone, matriarch of a ruined family that Eugene O’Neill modeled after his own for his finest play, written in 1941.

In recent years, it’s been increasingly frequent for new plays to run for an intermissionless hour and a half, some shorter. I’ve repeatedly said, somewhat jokingly, that a theater critic’s second-favorite words to hear from a publicist are, “It’s 90 minutes, no intermission,” bested only by, “About 75 minutes, no intermission.”

But like a broth simmered overnight, a well-crafted long play creates richness and depth that is almost impossible to achieve in a shorter time, and Bridge Street’s production of O’Neill’s magnum opus is the best example in recent memory. It does not feel like a marathon. It does not even feel lengthy. Divided here into three acts, each running slightly less than an hour and separated by compact intermissions, it is an engrossing portrait of a clan as imploded as a black hole. You will be rewarded and edified for devoting most of an evening or afternoon to it.

Fay has been excellent at Bridge Street before, including as Leni Riefenstahl in “Leni” three years ago and, in 2015, “Home Fires Burning,” a solo show she wrote and performed. And so it is unsurprising but still impressive how good she is in her first time playing Mary, who, after a Catholic education in the 1870s, fell in love with a dashing actor a dozen years her senior and spent the next three and a half decades accompanying him on theater tours around the country during the season, suffering summers isolated in a ramshackle seaside home in a Connecticut town she hates.

The play takes place in that house over about 16 hours in 1912. Recently returned from rehab for a morphine habit that started when she was given the drug after the difficult birth of her younger son, Edmund, now 23, Mary’s soul has been crumbled by loneliness and addiction. She can’t resist the needle, and the household — Edmund; his 33-year-old brother, Jamie; her husband, James; and the maid, Cathleen —spends the rest of an exhausting day helplessly watching her float into the past.

O’Neill’s challenges for actors are significant, requiring quick emotional changes that could go wrong or feel false in so many ways. For instance, Mary, momentarily deluding herself that Edmund has a “summer cold,” not tuberculosis, in the very next sentence wails that she doesn’t want him to die; the different mental states are separated by only a period, a dot of punctuation, and yet from Fay the switch is wholly believable. In another moment, Christopher Joel Onkean, as Edmund, masterfully delivers Baudelaire’s ode to intoxication, “Be Drunk,” as Bridge Street co-founder Steven  Patterson, playing James, watches with the affection, pleasure and grief of a father who knows his son may be terminally ill. It’s a testament to the actors that you often fail to notice how long some of the speeches and scenes really are; they flow past, by turns swirling and becalmed.  

Rounding out the cast and no less accomplished are Christopher Patrick Mullen as the dissolute Jamie, who followed his father into acting but found less success, and Taylor Congdon as Cathleen, the lone representative of the outside world we meet and a necessary relief from the gloom. Director and Bridge Street co-founder John Sowle guides these five with an eye attuned to moment tiny as well as epic.

The production is all of a piece, fully realized, from Justin Morell’s incidental piano music to the rush of the ocean, the clank of a harbor buoy and the lowing of a foghorn by sound designer Carmen Borgia. Special kudos to the palette from designers Michelle Rogers (costumes) and Marc Swanson (set): It’s a pale wash of white, cream, gray and beige, the only jolt of color from a brown bookcase containing dark-bound volumes of literature that represent the escapes the family, save maybe for Edmund, likely will never make.