Nationals Park isn’t the only spot on the Washington waterfront that gives you a taste of the pros these days. Just around the point at Arena Stage, the player to watch is Helen Carey, who with major-league emotional authority portrays Mary Tyrone, the matriarch hooked on morphine and withdrawing unreachably into religious reverie in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
The enveloping gloom of this “Journey” — the second of Arena’s entries in this spring’s Eugene O’Neill Festival — unquestionably swirls most vitally around Carey’s Mary. Degree by furtive degree, Carey provides as meticulously detailed a portrait of this anguishing character as I’ve ever encountered. It’s the first time I’ve felt as if I’ve been fully immersed in a step-by-step loosening of Mary’s mental grip, as a drug fog dulls her psychic pain and cocoons her in an ever more sweetly remembered past.
“No, you can’t help thinking it’s a home,” Mary says, with devastatingly withering politeness, to Peter Michael Goetz’s James Tyrone, the actor-husband whose miserliness binds the family in bitterness. And Carey, it seems, can no more help the blinding light she casts here, even on the other performances. The effect, in director Robin Phillips’s mostly creditable production in the Kreeger Theater, is to illuminate a complexity gap between her and some of her fellow actors. What results is an experience that, at the end of nearly three hours, triggers less than the complete, desired spectrum of shattered impacts.
How like a family of men this production can seem — with a mom who appears to be pulling more than her fair share of the load. With his silver locks and rich baritone, Goetz’s James captures the pride and vanity of an old actor, but there’s also a monotonous quality in his singsong delivery that translates less as a father’s inflexibility than as a practiced ham’s shallowness. As Jamie, the snide, carousing elder son, Andy Bean has difficulty conveying more than one dimension of the character’s alcohol-fed cynicism. The portrayal is conceived as too stern and contemporary for the bruised, 30-something wash-up still living off his parents on the Connecticut coast in the midsummer of 1912.
Nathan Darrow’s Edmund, the younger son exhibiting symptoms of consumption — to the worry of his wallet-obsessed father — offers the most supple account of a man of the Tyrone household. Perhaps that’s because the boyish Darrow’s sulking performance seems the most keenly attuned to Carey’s. It is remarked on in “Long Day’s Journey,” after all, that Edmund is his mother’s son.
Among the men, you get the strongest sense from this Edmund, too, that eyes perpetually follow Mary any time she enters the living room of her detested summer home, designed here by Hisham Ali as a cold, glass skeleton with walls as thinly veiled as the family’s secrets. Like every other reflex or remark in this house, the attention Mary’s movements draw reflects a desire for both communion and isolation. The members of this clan live in a tormented cage, in which a conversation can turn in a blink from conspiratorial to prosecutorial, a place where every compassionate impulse is matched by a vicious one.
Was ever a family so devoted to an ingrained ritual of blame? Edmund’s birth caused Mary’s pain; Mary’s pain unleashed James’s penny-pinching; James’s penny-pinching led to Mary’s addiction; Mary’s addiction set off Jamie’s emotional paralysis. Around and around they go in O’Neill’s carousel of recrimination, a masterpiece suggesting that family feuds need not be carried on with guns but with a thousand needles.
It’s noteworthy, too, that the obsessive interior monologues of O’Neill’s bizarre “Strange Interlude” seem such ham-handed counterpoints to the vibrant carping, whining, self-correcting and placating of “Journey.” The latter represents, of course, O’Neill’s family, and he grasped in this unvarnished burst of naturalism that we needed no extraneous self-narration to know what lighted these characters’ fuses.
Phillips, former artistic director of Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, is not much interested in the play’s pyrotechnics. This is a more contained interpretation than the excellent 2003 Broadway revival with Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In the Kreeger, this tendency contributes to the sluggish effect of the long, last confessional scene between Jamie, Edmund and James. But it imbues Carey’s elegantly modulated performance with an added urgency throughout.
Wearing a lacy blouse and mauve skirt that billows to the floor, Carey seems at first a rather delicate and fresh-faced Mary. But each time she makes the retreat her husband and sons dread — to the bathroom upstairs for “the medicine for my rheumatism’’ — she returns ever so slightly changed: an eye droops a little more, a giggle lingers a bit longer, a truth more easily escapes her lips.
In her placid haze, Carey’s Mary is terrifying, and like the walls, transparent. She’s like the living, breathing family insignia — one that spells failure. Looking into Carey’s eyes as they wander back to a time before regret, you glimpse the harrowing spectacle of hopelessness.
by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Robin Phillips. Set, Hisham Ali; costumes, Susan Benson; lighting, Michael Whitfield; sound, James Sugg; wigs, Paul Huntley. With Helen Hedman. About 2 hours 50 minutes. Through May 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org
or call 202-488-3300.