O’Neill’s Writing. Hurt’s Voice.

My last adventure of the summer was last week when I trekked to Portland, Oregon to see William Hurt

Actually, with hubby at the wheel, we drove to Portland, but it truly is a trek:  a long drive with scenery that is beautiful at first, and then mind-numbingly boring for the last few hours.  Plus, no radio reception over the mountain passes. And my car doesn’t have air conditioning. 

But, Eugene O’Neill’s writing; William Hurt’s voice.

After a hip and trendy pre-theatre lunch (we were too hungry to wait for the more traditional pre-theatre dinner), the first stop in our day was the Best Bookstore Ever: Powell’s, at which I bought a stack of books despite being in the minimum of a month-long virtual line for a Kindle. As Belle has pointed out, I’m still going to want to own actual books, so the selection process was quite deliberate, choosing books I may use in the classroom in the near future, or books that I simply want to own.  (My usual process at Powell’s, with their used books and affordable prices, is to pull books off the shelves as if they were penny candy).

After a beer at the new Deschutes Brewery, also in the hip and trendy Pearl District, I meandered through Pioneer Plaza for some shopping (leaving hubby chatting with the bartender about beer), and eventually walked back to the hotel, to change, meet hubby for happy hour at the hip and trendy hotel bar (basically, Portland is very hip and trendy) for a shot and a snack before the epic 3.5 hour play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, with William Hurt as James Tyrone, Sr.

The Newmark Theatre is beautiful: glass, lovely stair cases—a miniature Lincoln Center. We had front row first balcony seats which were perfect for seeing the entire stage and hearing the actors. We were forewarned by the critics about Hurt’s mumbling and the bizarrely creaky seats of the theatre, and both complaints were accurate. But despite both, I loved this production of the play. 

If you haven’t read or seen the film version with Katherine Hepburn and Jason Robards, the autobiographical play takes place during one summer day in 1912, revealing the tragic fates, fatalism is a key theme, of O’Neill’s father, a wealthy but destructively cheap, type-cast actor; his drug addicted mother; his alcoholic, ne’er do well brother; and himself, an aimless, suicidal poet who has just been diagnosed with TB, a disease that was often fatal in the early 20th century.   The four characters (and Cathleen, the Irish maid) are moved like chess pieces: each scene shows us a different combination (Tyrone and Mary together, the brothers, father and son, mother and son, etc) of characters, giving us different perspectives on their flaws, their relationships.  It’s purely a character-driven play, psychological realism, with lots of naturalism (in the form of ethnic and biological inheritance of tragic flaws) and a dash of melodrama: it’s a mix that appeals to me, and to most lovers of family dramas to this day (I’d bet even Jonathan Franzen has a soft spot for O’Neill).

The stage was a stark steel grey, with a large red frame toward the front of the stage, literally framing the action, and adding to the claustrophobia of the rest of the set.  Otherwise, there was only a small table, with 2 chairs. The actors mostly stood, walked, sometimes kneeled on the floor in those moments of the play when there is the most severe emotional angst and/or physical connection between characters.  It’s an exhausting play to act in, and to watch, and also totally emotionally absorbing, too.   I’ve always thought that O’Neill’s play, a play he did not publish or produce while he was alive, was a sympathetic portrayal of his very flawed parents and brother.  And this production truly reflects that. William Hurt’s Tyrone is stiff and awkward at times, but he is also the most understanding of the family members. He is critical of their flaws, yes, but he also has the most insight into his wife and sons.  I love the build up to the end of the play when Tyrone tells his story of growing up impoverished, quietly chastising Edmond (the Eugene O’Neill character) for playing at being poor. 

The criticism of Hurt mumbling his lines is accurate; however, I noticed that all the male actors seemed to do that in the first Act, almost rushing through their lines.  By the end of Act I, I no longer noticed it, and by Act II, the actors all slowed down, for the most part, also in keeping with their increasing in-take of alcohol (and for Mary, drugs).  I don’t remember the film version enough to do an accurate comparison, but I do remember the film’s first Act also reflecting the increasing tension in the family as they recognized Mary’s return to drugs, and waited for Edmund’s doctor to call with the confirmation of TB.   Perhaps the speed of the dialogue (and thus the inevitable swallowing of some words, in Hurt’s case) in Act I was a way to heighten the tension? 

Though asking me to criticize William Hurt’s performance is probably not going to get us anywhere: I have an irrational attraction to the sympathetic drug dealer I adored in The Big Chill and the lustful and deceived co-conspirator in Body Heat. That’s 30 years of fandom (aka lust and irrational admiration) for you young’uns.  For a 60 year old man, he looked damn fine: slender in his 1912 suit (though hubby claims the vest hid a pot belly, and I assume that wasn’t envy talking), a grey and brown speckled beard, piercing eyes.

During intermission, I strolled through the lobby, decided not to purchase a plastic sippy cup of wine for $7.00, and people watched instead.  It was like being at a MLA Convention! The theatre goers looked and sounded professorial: men in casual academic khakis and button downs (some with bow ties); women with soft pants and flowing scarves.  I felt so at home, and even joined a few conversations, which varied wildly from discussion of acting and pacing, to theme and context. 

An interesting future MLA panel idea: watch a play or even a film excerpt, get some context from some self-identified experts, then discuss, perhaps with a focus on autobiographical elements, for example.  Of course we’d need more than 1 hour and 15 minutes, especially if it were an O’Neill play.  And if William Hurt participated.

Just a little end of summer fantasy.

2 responses to “O’Neill’s Writing. Hurt’s Voice.

  1. The trip sounds great! And I would have LOVED to see William Hurt performing. Anything at all, really.

    Sign me up for that MLA panel. Cool!

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