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Fantastic ‘Journey’

Wes Deitrick, left, stars as James Tyrone, and Damon Mentzer as Edmund in the Actor's Repertory Theatre production of
Wes Deitrick, left, stars as James Tyrone, and Damon Mentzer as Edmund in the Actor's Repertory Theatre production of "Long Day's Journey into Night." (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” might be called the “Hamlet” of American theater.

For one thing, it is considered one of the best plays– if not the best – in American theater.

For another, it is a complex psychological play about a dysfunctional family, complete with madness, emotional agony and a son haunted by his father – although in this case the father is no ghost. He’s a mean, penny-pinching, has-been actor.

It also contains some of the best roles ever written: the aging actor, James Tyrone; his morphine-addicted wife, Mary; the boozing son, James Jr.; the sickly younger son, Edmund.

Fredric March won a Tony for best actor in the original 1956 production. Brian Dennehy won the same award for the 2003 revival and Vanessa Redgrave won for best actress that year.

As for O’Neill, he received his fourth Pulitzer Prize for drama, this one posthumously. He remains the only American dramatist to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

This Actor’s Repertory Theatre production, opening Friday, has been through a long journey of its own.

Artistic director Michael Weaver originally scheduled the play for last season, but pushed it back to this fall to accommodate the schedule of David Ogden Stiers (“M*A*S*H”), who had agreed to appear as the patriarch.

Then Stiers landed another movie and asked Weaver if the show could be pushed back again. Weaver reluctantly decided that moving it once was enough.

So the elder Tyrone will be played by local actor Wes Deitrick, who has experience in big American dramatic roles. He played the father, Joe Keller, in Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” at the Spokane Civic Theatre in March.

Karen Nelsen plays Mary, Carter J. Davis plays James Jr., Damon Mentzer plays Edmund and Theresa Kelly plays the housemaid, Cathleen. Weaver directs.

“Long Day’s Journey into Night” was never produced while O’Neill was alive.

His father, James O’Neill, was a well-known actor, much like Tyrone, and similarly prone to melodrama. O’Neill wrote the play around 1941 as a kind of autobiographical catharsis, and stipulated that it not be performed until 25 years after his death – it was too brutally honest.

He died in 1953, but his widow released the rights only three years later. It was produced on Broadway in 1956, with March as the father and Jason Robards Jr. as the son.

Theater critic Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times recognized on opening night that he had seen something momentous.

“With the production of ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night,’ the American theater acquires size and stature,” wrote Atkinson.

“(The play) is like a Dostoevsky novel in which Strindberg had written the dialogue. For this saga of the damned is horrifying and devastating in the classical tradition.”

He went on to refer to it as “epic literature” that “comes alive in the theater.”

(Today, both Atkinson and O’Neill have Broadway theaters named after them.)

The play has had a long and successful run of revivals, including a 1986 production featuring Jack Lemmon as the elder Tyrone and Kevin Spacey as the junior; a 1988 version with Robards taking over the older role and Colleen Dewhurst as his wife; and the acclaimed 2003 production with Dennehy, Redgrave and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

It also was made into a movie, first in 1962 with Ralph Richardson, Katharine Hepburn and Robards, and later a 1973 version with Laurence Olivier.

Olivier, Richardson, Robards, Spacey, Hepburn, Redgrave – yes, this play does share a lot in common with Shakespeare. Yet it’s as American as its New England setting.