There should be a medal for even trying to mount this theatrical Everest, running minimum three hours mostly among four principals, scaling the heights and depths of the grim family dynamic of America’s greatest playwright. And this production in a small but venerable basement theater in Dallas, delivers, for my money, the most spot-on James Tyrone I’ve ever seen–including the sainted Ralph Richardson and Brian Dennehy in the comparison.
Bruce DuBose is the very image of stage legend James O’Neill who made the ladies swoon as the Count of Monte Cristo for thirty years, even into his sixties. Finally we see Tyrone the star, with humble origins and steady box office. Costumed with casual grandness by Giva Taylor, DuBose uses his rumbling baritone to chide, pet, and declaim to his family, a swaggery mix of the seasoned Shakespearean and the Irish barroom brigadier. He’s a bit unsteady in the opening, as if he found himself on stage, historiless, with a satchel of reprimands that needed to be delivered. But it’s well worth the ride, especially to experience his fourth act scene alone with Edmund. Kudos to director Katherine Owens for the insight that the Tyrones were a theater family, and that that brings with it a style of interaction.
Josh Blann, as Edmund, is a winningly believable son and younger brother, carrying the point-of-view position securely, although he is a more centered, hearty fellow than we expect Edmund to be. We believe he was a sailor for a time (thanks again also to Taylor’s thoughtful costuming). But we don’t sense that this bluff, likable bloke really has a touch of the poet in him, nor that he has been touched very much by tuberculosis.
Shelby Davenport, as the Broadway swell Jamie, is also believable as a creature of his time, a native speaker of the day’s hip slang. And he fully rises to the occasion in the family dynamics. But he is surprisingly centered, lacking in self-hatred and the inclination to oblivion. He is another rather likable guy, as was O’Neill’s actual brother by all accounts. So he’s plausible, if not a portent of the hollowed Jim Tyrone of Moon for the Misbegotten.
Where this production and I part most sharply is on Mary Tyrone, the nervous, flighty, passive-aggressive (spoiler alert) morphine addict, whose subtext is always and only to acceptably push others away and get upstairs to her next fix. Here instead we get a youngish aggressive-aggressive, with no felt difference in psychic layer between things said in order to be an acceptable female in 1910, things said to wound, things long remembered, and things said to throw others off her scent. The smart line readings come fast and loud, all accompanied by an intelligent whir of grimaces and extreme expressions, but with no sense of attachment to a breathing human with a beating heart. I apologize to the hard-working actor for my bluntness, but my sympathies lie more with O’Neill’s character.
Most refreshing, and arguably the strongest performance in the bunch, is Katherine Bourne in the tiny role of Cathleen, the Irish serving girl. She’s technically perfect, but more importantly she is disarmingly rooted in her point of view, as nonplussed, charming and real as a live cat walking through the room.
This LDJ is no mumbling studio exercise in fly-on-the-wall naturalism, and in this instance I appreciate it. Owen keeps the stage pictures coming gracefully. We are never bored, which is saying a lot for this usually heavy work. And you may well leave feeling that you understand the play better than ever before.