Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The play everyone’s afraid of

Sydney Theatre Company’s coming to town, and that’s a big deal. As a world-class company that has shared its stage with the likes of Complicite, Cheek by Jowl, Out-of-Joint and the National, STC itself has toured to prominent American venues including BAM and the Kennedy Center. Plus its co-artistic director is Cate Blanchett, whose early career was fostered by this theater. So forgive me if I’m just a wee bit IMPRESSED that Cate and STC are coming to Portland for a co-pro with our very own Artists Repertory Theatre.

And that ain’t all. The play in question is a towering classic of American drama: none other than O’Neill’s masterpiece, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Long Day’s Journey into Night. This is a play that is rarely performed, and for good reason. It is a horror show; it starts out with a sense of grim foreboding and gets more and more harrowing as it progresses.

When I saw the Broadway revival many years ago, starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards as the fractious parents (Mr. Robards originated the role of the elder son in the play’s premiere production in 1956) and Jamey Sheridan and Campbell Scott as the sons, I was also struck by the way the script produced its meaning through its very setting. The story starts at 8:30 in the morning, and concludes at midnight of the same day. As the ghosts of the past press in on the characters, so too does the house fill with literal gloom, as first shadows and eventually total darkness engulf the family.

So why would you submit yourself to an evening with four people going from bad to worse? Because not only is the script excellent, it’s also a tour de force for every actor in it. Taking on the role of patriarch James Tyrone, a magnificent ruin of a man, is akin to playing an American King Lear; it’s that devastating. In this production, ART perennial favorite William Hurt assays the role, repeating the performance that garnered him great reviews in Australia.

All the other actors can be no less superb; a weak link in this quadrille would cause the whole thing to collapse. This cast includes one of Portland’s finest actors, Todd Van Voris, playing elder son Jamie; from all accounts, he’s been holding his own admirably.

Long Day’s Journey into Night begins this Friday the 13th at the mammoth Newmark Theatre (tip: do not purchase seats closer than the sixth row unless you enjoy exercising your neck’s flexor muscles). Gawker alert: Saturday is the opening night, and Cate is rumored to be attending! You have until September 5 to see the show, but I wouldn’t wait; this is a production everyone will be talking about.

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