Eugene O’Neill Prophesies Our Modern Opioid Crisis
by Jordan Freed
A terrific cellist, Alexander Kort, provides a backdrop of dark, ominous notes. Offstage, father, son, and mother perform unsettling choreography, banging against walls, and crawling up a set of stairs that lead nowhere.
Director Michael Socrates Moran injects a hazy, dreamlike quality into O’Neill’s 1956 masterwork, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” At Ubuntu Theater Project I feel transported back to the eerie atmosphere of The Twilight Zone. An unseen sinister force is provoking us—poking and prodding, testing our psychological limits.
But there is nothing supernatural here, just the workings of addiction warping the minds of the suffering Tyrone family. Addictions to prescribed morphine and alcohol make the family—and us—suspicious of everyone, driving people apart.
Miserly retired actor, and family patriarch, James Tyrone (riveting Victor Talmadge), fills the room with his towering presence. Quick to anger and to drink, Tyrone, the tyrant, takes every chance to upbraid his family. He relentlessly provokes his drunken eldest son, Jamie (splendid Jose Rodriguez), who comes home every summer to freeload off his parents.
Talmadge is so effective in his wrath that we find ourselves shrinking in our seats, fearful he may turn on us. Set Designer Karla Hargrave puts us inches from the action, using thrust staging to ramp up the tension.
But Talmadge also deftly weaves empathy into his drunken patriarch, particularly in moments with his wife, Mary (hypnotic Cathleen Riddley). James loves Mary and we see how deeply it pains him to watch her slip away into morphine madness.
Riddley’s struggling morphine addict, Mary Tyrone, is full of love for her husband and children, but she harbors many resentments. Riddley is extraordinary in the role, commanding our attention as soon as she steps onstage. In her most powerful and disturbing moment, Riddley lies face down on the floor—her Mary crying out in anguish.
Our heart breaks every time Mary’s sweet façade cracks, unleashing vitriolic attacks on her loved ones. Those of us who have experienced family members struggling with addiction recognize the outbursts, and familiar pain that follows.
Youngest son, Edmund (moving Kevin Rebultan) faces a potentially mortal illness. In what could be his last days, we see his ill-fated attempt to connect with his family. He blames his mean, penny-pinching father for the family woes. Edmund is rightfully terrified that his father will send him off to a low-grade sanitarium. James’ drinking is no less terrifying than Mary’s morphine—both known for cruelty.
As the opioid epidemic sweeps across the United States, our gut-wrenching familiarity with addiction and loss is everywhere. O’Neill’s 50s play, set in 1912, wrestles with the same hardships we are facing now. These are the years of crisis, again.
Ubuntu boldly thrusts Eugene O’Neill into 2019, with a powerhouse cast and inventive staging. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to see a smart, courageous, and contemporary play about our addictions.
“A Long Day’s Journey into Night” by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Michael Socrates Moran, by Ubuntu Theater Project, at The FLAX Building, 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland, through Sunday, October 27, 2019. Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com
Cast: Victor Talmadge, Cathleen Riddley, Kevin Rebultan, Jose Rodriguez, and Alexander Kort.
Banner photos: Cathleen Riddley and Alexander Kort.