By Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n director Michael Weaver's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (at Actors Rep through Oct. 6), a restrained first half is redeemed by a powerful finale and buoyed by the performance of Karen Nelsen as Mary Tyrone, the drug addict who couldn't handle the truth even before she started shooting up. With Wes Deitrick offering a weak performance as the patriarch, however, a lot of O'Neill's emotional impact is dulled. As the two sons -- drunken, self-hating Jamie and the sickly poet Edmund -- Carter J. Davis and Damon C. Mentzer are good throughout but have their most searing scenes at the end, meaning that the ARt Journey delays its deepest impact until its third and final hour.
Long Day's Journey, set four months after the Titanic sank, offers dated phrases like "you're a fine lunkhead" as insults actually meant to sting. But if you substitute your own particular form of addiction for the Tyrones' whiskey and morphine, Journey morphs into a contemporary play. It hammers away at our denials, our unwillingness to face the truth, our eagerness to blame circumstances and other people and the past -- anything but ourselves. It's three hours of denial junkies raging at one another, lashing each other with the very things they least want to hear about themselves.
Nelsen stands out from the beginning. With fingers fluttering upward for continual adjustments to her hair, she conveys the paranoia of a guilt-ridden woman. She plays the nervous coquette out of vague habit; her chin dips when she apologizes, but then she quickly squints to see how her apology is playing with the three men who know her secrets. Small lies catch in her throat; bigger lies lead to outright denials.
"None of us can help the things life has done to us," Mary laments at one point. Not "what we make of our lives," but what "life has done to us": The finger is always pointed outward. Though Nelsen underplays the moment, this may be the ultimate denial in a play full of people denying the things they know they're in denial about.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s James Tyrone, Wes Deitrick is no David Ogden Stiers. It's not fair, of course, to criticize the production that might have been, only the one that's being presented. What Deitrick presents us with, however -- in his portrait of the whiskey-swilling, penny-pinching, washed-up-but-proud Irish actor who was Eugene O'Neill's father -- is a weak vocal delivery and a hesitant physical presence. There's none of the stentorian actor, none of the charisma and blarney.
Deitrick gives us a small, beaten-down man who doesn't rage when he needs to: He's flat during a rare moment of candor with his wife, asking her please to stop taking the "poison" that she's restarted. When Mary lets slip the shocking implication that maybe she wishes one of her own sons hadn't been born, Deitrick replies with a series of ineffectual gestures. But there are glimpses of Tyrone's grandeur. When Mary's drug use resumes, Deitrick stands stock-still in accusation; in the clipped phrases he flings at her, there's the shorthand of futile blame. In the late-night truth serum of the final act, Deitrick pounds down the whiskeys and grows quietly savage with his resentments. Childhood poverty created a miser out of him, he says; greed trapped him in the traveling actor's life. Deitrick spits out his anger in an effective conclusion, but it's too late. He's not up to a towering role like Tyrone; few actors are.
Mentzer and Davis also shine in the finale. As the playwright's alter ego in this play, Mentzer (who somewhat resembles the young O'Neill) is the na & iuml;f who was long unaware of Mama's drug problem. He's stuck coughing into the pages of a book for much of the evening -- and an angry "dope fiend for a mother" outburst isn't convincing -- but he excels at finally eliciting the truth from his tightwad father. Best of all, in a rapturous speech about the beauties of life at sea, Mentzer simply delivers this bleak play's chief expression of beauty -- or, at least, of the hope of self-recognition.
Davis plays the embittered older brother who resents his parents and his own inability to forge a career. When conversing with family members whom he loves and loathes, Davis stands at oblique angles and thrusts his hands into his pockets. Holding his head in his hands and then looking up, you'd swear that his eyes are bloodshot with grief and too much liquor. To cheer up his brother, he leans against a whitewashed trellis and affects bravado -- but a sweaty forehead and a false grin give him away. When Davis confesses his self-disgust in the final scene, his acting admirably blends opposites: embracing and lashing out at his brother, warning and attacking him.
John Hofland's set -- all white wooden slats -- is brightly lit by Justin Schmidt but appeared to be hosting some other play, perhaps a light romantic comedy. Any attempt at irony -- or at subjecting the Tyrone family to the harsh light of truth -- was lost in the mismatch of text and visuals whenever one of the Tyrones would refer to encroaching darkness that wasn't evident. At one point, a feeble fog effect needlessly literalized a symbol that would have been better off left implicit.
E & lt;span class= "dropcap " & a & lt;/span & ch of the characters in Journey creates a fog of denial about some important part of their family life. Yet each of them acts as a truth-teller, exposing whatever the others least want to hear. Then they turn to forgetfulness in whatever form's at hand: sleep, an idealized past, blame, alcohol, drugs, untruth.
While the Actors Rep production is flawed, spending three hours with such self-deluded, fallible, yearning human beings is like being told a corrective tale: We all have our little addictions.