“None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
O'Neill's autobiographical classic is not an easy work to stage or to watch. With four main characters, four acts and a duration of three-and-a-half hours, it's an endurance test from both sides of the stage. However, when it's done well, it can be absorbing and rewarding, especially for those with a taste for drama at its bleakest. Such is the case with the Actors Co-op's current production.
Set in a single day at the Connecticut summer home of the Tyrones, the play is a harrowing look at a family crumbling to pieces. Patriarch James is an aging actor whose opportunities have shrunk to nothing, reducing him to penny-pinching and too much drinking. His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who's just returned from the sanitorium to a husband and sons who hope she's finally been cured. Jamie, the elder, is a bitter, unapologetic wastrel who shares his father's taste for bourbon, and Edmund, the youngest, is facing a trip to the sanitorium himself, as he's been stricken with tuberculosis.
Over the course of the day, the men fight and drink, exchange bitter recriminations and apologize in equal measure. They also worry about Mary, whom they suspect is having a relapse, even as they continue to pound down the booze. As we learn more about these tragic figures, we realize that we're looking at mere spectres of the people they once were: James, the once-celebrated Shakespearean actor; Mary, who in her younger days was an innocent, devout girl with dreams of entering the convent; and Jamie, a clever actor and writer in his own right who seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. Only Edmund (O'Neill's surrogate) maintains an optimism about life, which is ironic because he's the one confronting a terminal illness.