It’s hard not to feel hopeless while watching Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey into Night. The day after I saw Arena Stage‘s production of this three hour masterpiece on how to tear your family apart, the headlines were full of stories proving the play’s relevancy to our times. Sales of the two most popular prescription painkillers (oxycodone and hydrocodone, of the opioid category) have risen dramatically in new areas of the US. Concurrent with the increase in sales is the increase in overdose deaths and pharmacy robberies. It’s an addiction problem that begins not with recreational use, but with using the medication initially for pain.
Just like poor Mary Tyrone, hooked on dope for decades following a difficult birth in a sordid hotel.
Played by the radiantly distraught Helen Carey, this long-suffering mother seems the proper focus for the play’s maelstrom of guilt and self-deceit. The whole family is caught in a continuous cycle of devastating returns to the past and an inability to escape. It’s a harrowing seesaw of emotions for an audience to endure. Luckily, director Robin Phillips introduces just enough laughter intermixed with the morbidity to allow us to hope.
But, it’s apparent as a society we have a long way to go to shake the yoke of the “poison” Mary takes. To call it a matter of willpower is a tragic misunderstanding. The Tyrones certainly aren’t able to exert any willpower about anything, as they repeatedly rip up each other in the present in an effort to win in the past.