Addled with drugs, pain and anger, Mary Tyrone bitterly recounts her honeymoon: lonely nights in dirty hotel rooms, waiting for her actor husband James to come back from the bar. And then, to James, she says with apparent contrition, “I’m sorry I remembered out loud.”
Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical drama is a three and a half hour act of remembering out loud. The playwright wouldn’t allow it to be performed while he was alive, and didn’t want it published until 25 years after his death, but his widow defied his wishes, releasing the play in 1956. It’s easy to see in Court Theatre’s wrenching new revival why O’Neill felt so protective; his portrait of James, Mary and sons Jamie and Edmund (the latter a stand-in for O’Neill himself) is one of family members emotionally torturing each other and themselves.
David Auburn’s production is unadorned but staggeringly acted, with Jack Magaw’s set design emphasizing the claustrophobia of the Connecticut cottage in which the Tyrones hurl resentments and recriminations. A writer himself, Auburn seems content to let us listen to O’Neill’s aching, beautiful words; the power of repetition in O’Neill’s language has never been clearer.
Harris Yulin is grand and grandiose as stingy patriarch James, who divides his time between worrying over his morphine-addicted wife’s possible relapse and insulting his sons in between pours of whiskey. Dan Waller plays Jamie’s self-loathing persuasively, and Doonan is captivating even as he largely underplays Edmund’s anguish (there’s no put-on affectation of sickliness, thank goodness).
But it’s Mary Beth Fisher’s paranoid, loving, passive-aggressive and haunting Mary on which this production hinges. Her slow unraveling over the course of this long day is as heartbreaking as it is compelling. In Court’s worthy revival, Fisher gets the last word literally and figuratively.
Court Theatre. By Eugene O’Neill. Directed by David Auburn. With Mary Beth Fisher, Harris Yulin, Michael Doonan, Dan Waller, Alanna Rogers. Running time: 3hrs 40mins; two intermissions.