For theater companies and audiences alike, two things are intimidating about Long Day's Journey Into Night: its length and its pedigree. It takes a good three hours to accompany the Tyrone family through one tumultuous day in 1912 New England in this semi-autobiographical play that netted Eugene O'Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1957 (one of his four).
When played with as much honesty and depth as is currently being done at Undermain Theatre, though, a formidable classic sheds its intimidating rep to become a gripping family drama. This is the kind of work that Undermain excels at: intimate stories between a handful of characters, told through urgent, truthful acting.
It certainly helps that Bruce DoBose and Joanna Schellenberg are there to anchor as James and Mary Tyrone, each inhabiting characters that could easily turn cartoonish in lesser hands. DuBose's rich baritone rolls over O'Neill's words with a comforting Irish lilt as he reminisces about James' celebrated time onstage (even Edwin Booth praised him), yet his watchful eyes reveal the worry he feels for his family.
Eldest son and playboy Jamie (Shelby Davenport) is back at the family's Connecticut summer home, grudgingly doing chores but counting down the minutes until he can sneak a dram of whiskey. Fragile younger brother Edmund (Josh Blann) is nursing a serious illness but insisting he's fine. Davenport and Blann are each a little out of sync at times — Jamie a little too pragmatic, Edmund a bit too robust — but when they're fully immersed, their brotherly bond is genuine.
But the most hypnotizing aspect of this production, besides John Arnone's meticulous set and Steve Woods' ghostly lighting, is Schellenberg. She begins fresh and fluttery as her family's morning plays out, but with each entrance it becomes at first subtly, then increasingly more blatant that something in changing within her Mary.
A major theme of Long Day is the insidious way morphine stole its way into the lives of respectable women of the time, and Mary Tyrone can't escape the drug's grasp. By nightfall, Mary is glassy eyed and in her own private world, after tersely insisting that the medicine is strictly for her rheumatism. Her weary family, however, has seen this downward spiral before.
Katherine Owens brilliantly uses the walkway behind the set as a transition space, showing the summer help, Cathleen (bright and bonny Katherine Bourne), sneaking a cigarette or James strolling in his going-into-town best. (Costumes by Giva Taylor are period-perfect.)
Arranging these tableaux within Woods' eerie spotlights, with the oft-talked-about fog rolling in among the actors' feet, paints a literal portrait of an early 20th century family that is hiding its shameful secrets away from the public. By the time Schellenberg floats through the back space like a ghost, the show has fully become not just a masterwork of words, but of images as well.
Long Day's Journey Into Night plays at Undermain Theatre through March 6.