Oldcastle delivers searing Eugene O'Neill masterpiece

Nigel Gore and Christine Decker in "Long Day's Journey into Night," by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Eric Peterson and now on stage at the Oldcastle Theatre Company through Oct. 14.

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BENNINGTON — When I was a boy, I recall once having a spat with my parents over something where I was totally wrong. Of course, I didn't know that back then, and had grown so frustrated, wishing I was someone else's son, because no way no how were there any families out there more dysfunctional than mine.

Four decades have passed since I somehow survived that cauldron of teenage angst and discontent, and its vibe came back to me in waves in the shadows of Oldcastle Theatre Company, while taking in what is arguably the greatest American play ever written, Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night."

Directed by Eric Peterson, the play is running for a limited engagement of 12 shows, through Oct. 14.

The story, which O'Neill originally drafted in 1941, takes place in August 1912, on one day in the life of a tumultuous family, the Tyrones, complete with patriarch James (Nigel Gore) and his wife, Mary, (Christine Decker), who are joined by sons Jamie (Martin Jason Asprey) and Edmund (Brendan McGrady), and the maid Cathleen (Piper Goodeve).

The plot and characters are based on O'Neill's own family, and very thinly veiled. In the space of about 16 hours at their summer cottage, the Tyrones face alcoholism, opioid addiction, illness, unprincipled behavior, as well as the gift of powerful expression, seemingly, from all of them.

O'Neill didn't want the work performed until 25 years after his death, but when he passed away in 1953, his wife Carlotta proceeded to have the play open in Sweden in 1956, and then it headed to Boston and soon after, Broadway.

It also earned O'Neill his fourth Pulitzer prize, posthumously, in 1957, and won Tony and New York Drama Critics honors. O'Neill had also previously been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1936.

This was a steep acting cliff to scale, and Peterson had his players primed for opening weekend.

Goodeve's Cathleen provided a welcome divide from the rest of the Tyrone family. She was able to deftly contrast the maid's standing and station, all while hinting at the vulnerability that she also shared in the presence of alcohol. Goodeve wasn't on stage much, but when there, was a welcome sight.

McGrady's representation of O'Neill in Edmund had just the right balance of understatement, disdain, and the desire to be someone else, his own man, yet still cognizant of his family's anchor around his neck. The young actor impressed with the intensity he poured into Edmund's inner angst.

Asprey's drunken musings in the second act were the stuff of plays that keep audience members hooked to a performance long after they leave the theater. The sheer physical insight that Asprey — who also, not accidentally, capably doubles as the play's fight choreographer — brought to that scene would have been enough to sell it, but his verbal delivery was so realistic it made one want to test the whiskey bottle on stage to see if it was switched out with the real thing. Bravo!

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Finally, it was difficult to appreciate Decker without thinking of Gore, and vice versa, even if some of their best moments weren't in the presence of each other. Both visibly fighting their own demons, one can't help but see the love for each other, and this is a masterful symbiotic achievement for both actors.

James and Mary Tyrone are giants as characters, and one would think that since it's often how children, even as adults, view parents. Both, however, had to sell a personal unraveling, and how they were able to do so is the stuff of tears. Gore and Decker thus had to be larger than life, and Peterson clearly knew who he was casting for this show. Having seen both these veteran actors for years, I'm confident in saying that taking on the Tyrones was their finest hour.

So if you want to see what masterful acting looks like, Decker and Gore deliver the goods, and then some. But don't think any of that is easy.

Lights and sound by David V. Groupe and Cory Wheat hit the marks and had multiple desired effects. Costume design by Ursula McCarty was vintage early 20th century, and aesthetically sublime, when Rick Howe's set was beautifully done with scores of added period touches. Kristine Schlachter's always reliable stage management was, by her own admission on social media, for this particular play, a bucket list wish realized. Congrats to her on that!

This is a most difficult play in which to act, though both Decker and Gore told me before the play opened how rewarding it was to take on its challenge. Any monologue can turn into a daunting task, and in "Long Day's Journey into Night" each one of the family members has at least one, if not more moments, when they must carry the story on their shoulders as they let their character's emotions pour out to the audience.

In the context of family, these soliloquies take on a deeply personal dimension, one that anyone watching the play can almost reach out and touch, all while comparing it to their own knowledge of close relationships. Mix in the power of addiction and its many faces, and one can't help feel that O'Neill was prescient, sensing almost instinctively what these scourges would become in the not too near future.

Peterson likes to say that plays like "Long Day's Journey into Night" are difficult logistically and otherwise to get on stage, but necessary manifestations of the creative, and so we must produce them, despite the challenges.

In that same vein, we must also go see them. Do so, and prepare to be wowed by some of the finest stage performances you'll ever witness — anywhere.

For my part, the brilliant Oldcastle actors invoked memories of a boyhood frustration that had once caused me great pain. Leaving the theater, though, I couldn't help but consider the plight of the Tyrones and recall my own Greek drama of a family, which then filled me with nothing but appreciation, and love.

"Long Day's Journey Into Night," by Eugene O'Neill and directed by Eric Peterson will run through Oct. 14 at Oldcastle Theatre Company, 331 Main St. in Bennington. Tickets and info: 802-447-0564 or www.oldcastletheatre.org.

Telly Halkias is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and a longtime regional journalist and drama critic. E-mail: tchalkias@aol.com, Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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