by Melissa Chipman
It’s a damned shame when you leave an experience at the theatre so lividly angry with the audience that the splendor of what you’ve just seen is overshadowed.
I’m a mild-mannered former school marm. In fact, I am a former English teacher who grew up in Eugene O’Neill’s neck of the woods. The “shabby” summer home in which “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is set is in the “godforsaken town” of New London, Connecticut, just a couple of miles away from my own mother’s home and closer still to the high school I attended. In high school, we were led to believe that O’Neill was no less worthy of a place in the canon than Shakespeare or Walt Whitman.
In short, Les Waters’ intended audience for his first directorial foray at Actors Theatre? C’est moi.
But despite the fact that I was overwhelmed by this notoriously difficult-to-produce production, and I remain deeply admiring of the efforts of Waters and the entire cast, the first thing that springs to my mind when I think about my evening at Actors is: What the hell is wrong with audiences these days?
Waters managed to cut down the lengthy addiction drama from a runtime that usually clocks in at 4 hours to one that ran much closer to 3, partially by eliminating an entire character, the family’s “second girl,” summer maid Cathleen. Despite the leaner runtime and the fact that the shorter first act slides along like butter on a hot skillet, when I returned to my seat after intermission at least four of my immediate neighbors had called it quits.
There’s something wrong with the world when a twentysomething-year-old woman thinks that sitting through an hour and twenty minutes of well-directed, emotional-to-the-point-of-neigh-emo-ness, and sometimes hilarious O’Neill is more than she can take.
But it wasn’t the audience members who jumped ship during intermission that ticked me off the most (it was certainly their loss; the second half of the play was more outstanding and gripping than the first), it was the lack of common courtesy shown from the moment Mary Tyrone first tread the boards to the final lights-out.
It was the “incoming message” beep that sounded from a phone behind and to the left of me, without fail, at least once every twenty minutes of the show. Even after intermission.
It was the full on ringing cellphones that cut through the dour and meaningful silences in Waters’ production. Just as we’re asked to contemplate the full nature of Edmund’s illness, we’re jolted from our sorrow by the sound of cheery windchimes emanating from a nearby seat.
It was those people who thought they’d be clever and circumvent the charge to “turn off all cellphones” by just switching theirs to vibrate. So as we are drawn to wonder about the source of Mary’s increasingly strange mannerisms, we’re shocked by the buzz of an incoming call.
It was all of the people who decided to use the bathroom INSIDE of the Pamela Brown Auditorium instead of courteously stepping outside so we didn’t have to hear the slamming of doors or the final rush of the toilet water as we were trying to understand if James Tyrone is as much of a bastard as he seems.
It was that little old lady, surely someone’s grandmother, so I will keep my more angry thoughts to myself, who chose to use said bathroom just as Mary launched into her final, most disturbing and wrenching monologue. As this broken, addicted woman kneels down to pray– whoosh! says the toilet.
What’s wrong with you people? Are we so accustomed to watching television or Netflix at home in our Snuggies with our iPads a-blazing and our Twitters on fire that we’ve forgotten the art– yes, it’s an art– of being an audience member?
I was sad for the cast. I was sad for Waters.
You’d think opening night of a theatre production would attract the most seasoned of theatre-goers. I could forgive the fact that a good 10% of the audience sounded like they had consumption themselves; it is allergy season (always allergy season in Louisville) after all. But I can’t forgive the avoidable rudeness, rudeness that was mentioned by every single person I spoke to after the show, from theatre professionals to professional reviewers.
“Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is an American masterpiece that is frequently read but rarely produced. When I got word that Waters, the new-ish Artistic Director of Actors Theatre Louisville, was making his directorial debut at the theatre was going to be this emotional behemoth of a play, I was simultaneously delighted and deeply concerned.
I left “A Long Day’s Journey” excited for Louisville.
O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play was a showcase for the talents of the four actors involved. Lisa Emery tackles one of the most demanding roles in American theatre with tragic, beautiful grace. Her Mary is meant to be 54 years old, but Emery allows her to slip between girlish and haggard beyond her years, sometimes in the space of a few lines. At times it’s hard to tell if David Chandler, as the brutal but sympathetic patriarch, James, is overacting, or is merely an actor playing an actor whose heydays were when overacting was vogue. The younger Tyrones are wildly appealing. Perhaps the most devastating scene of the play is the one where the alcoholic Jamie confesses his combined love and loathing for his sickly O’Neill stand-in brother Edmund.
Antje Ellermann’s stage is gorgeous and thrust deep into the theatre almost to the first row of seats. Costumes, sound design, make-up, all spot-on.
In fact, the only thing palpably awry about this production was not on the stage but in the seats.
We are so lucky to have Actors Theatre in our community. Let’s work on deserving it more.