Eugene O’Neill’s flawed last masterpiece is given a welcome and high voltage revival at the start of Kevin Spacey’s second year as artistic director of the Old Vic. The play is masterfully directed by Howard Davies who is re-united with Spacey and his co-star Eve Best with whom he has previously collaborated in award winning productions of O’Neill: Kevin Spacey in ‘The Iceman Cometh’ (1999) and Eve Best in ‘Mourning becomes Electra’ (2004). He elicits outstanding performances from them both as ill-matched lovers, alcoholic Jimmy Tyrone and fiery Josie Hogan as well as from Colm Meany as her conniving father in a powerful and perfectly paced comedy drama.
Josie, a woman of ruined reputation and her father Phil Hogan live in a dilapidated Connecticut farmhouse. Together they make a formidable duo as they scrape a living and defend their rented ruin against eviction. Josie’s vulnerable side is exposed through her intense love for landlord Jim Tyrone, a third rate Broadway actor with alcohol – inspired dreams of stardom.
This is O’Neill’s last play (written in 1942 and first performed in 1947) and is a fantasia on the life of his alcoholic elder brother James O’Neill, who died in 1923 aged 45 – the year of the play’s setting. In ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ – O’Neill’s intensely autobiographical play about all of his family (completed a year earlier) – we see the younger Jim Tyrone and in this play his character is further explored as O’Neill once more attempts to exorcise the memories of his family (who are ever present in the dialogue). Both plays are linked by O’Neill’s hard won compassion for his family and at the last a warm affection (as shown in the play’s glowing humour). Through Phil Hogan, it also celebrates the feckless joie de vivre of the Irish American poor, from which O’Neill’s own father escaped to become a celebrated stage actor.
O’Neill’s virtuosity in creating emotionally charged scenes of extended dialogue is always breathtaking, but in this play the dialogues are too long and at times too repetitive, providing a marathon for the performers. Spacey and Best are up to the challenge however. They give towering performances in their love scene – capturing their changing feelings with razor sharp intensity and totally involving the audience as they try to shake off their past in a desperate attempt to believe at last that they can be loved. Kevin Spacey perfectly captures Jimmy Tyrone’s mask of boozy showmanship and the despair and self loathing underneath. Eve Best, with slightly more edge, conveys compellingly Josie’s volatile emotions and desperate struggle against her poor self-image. Colm Meany’s Phil Hogan is a delight: a multi- layered comic creation nimbly walking the tightrope between Irish bar-room wit and feckless father.
These magnetic performances are set against Bob Crowley’s wonderfully dilapidated homestead and a backdrop with an acute perspective suggesting both the expanse and the loneliness of the surrounding land. Paule Constable’s subtle lighting perfectly matches the changing emotional landscape.
Altogether an amazing theatrical experience with performances which perfectly mirror O’Neill’s ability to trawl the heights and depths of the human soul. A must see.