Audible Theater's 'Long Day's Journey into Night' sets the classic O'Neill drama in 2020

Director Robert O'Hara has set Eugene O'Neill's masterwork in quarantine, making his story of a broken family the story of the world's modern fears.

Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Jason Bowen in Long Day's Journey into Night

"Last year was sort of a long day's year," said director Robert O'Hara of 2020. It's an apt description: Day after day in lockdown eventually blurred together as the world waited for the pandemic's end. It was — and as cases rise once again, continues to be — always just out of reach.

So for O'Hara, who is directing Audible Theater's revival of Long Day's Journey into Night in January, 2020 was a natural setting for the already bleak show. Eugene O'Neill's landmark play takes place over one day in a coastal Connecticut home, where the Tyrone family is falling apart. Tensions rise as the four family members discover each other's failures while fiercely, yet unsuccessfully, battling their own descents into addiction, illness, and debilitating regret. In O'Hara's production, the parents and their adult children are quarantined in the house, presumably after living apart for a while. It's no wonder that fears and secrets come up.

"Many of us went back to our families and had to deal with the traumas of being with our family, and also with revelations of things that we may not have been public about," O'Hara said. "And the fear that we had about either getting the virus or someone in our family getting the virus and when it will be over ... are the same fears that the Tyrones have about the addiction and alcoholism [in their family]."

That is to say, in pandemic-era real life and in the play, people fear that their family members will become afflicted and, if they do, that there's no end in sight to their suffering.

Although Covid-19 and the Tyrones' respective illnesses invite the same fears, Long Day's Journey into Night resonates differently for each actor based on what illness they're inhabiting. The specter of contagious disease, for example, was at top of mind for Ato Blankson-Wood (who O'Hara also directed in Slave Play, now in its second Broadway run). He plays Edmund, who has tuberculosis in O'Neill's original script. Now, O'Hara has left his condition ambiguous, which contributes to the Tyrones' anxiety and recalls the early days of the pandemic when tests were hard to come by.

Blankson-Wood spent 2020 in Los Angeles, living with his younger sister, an ER nurse. He saw parallels between Edmund's and his sister's Covid anxiety: "Thinking about Edmund and his illness, I think about my little sister and everything she was seeing and the fear that comes up with thinking, 'Is my life over? Have I been affected by this sickness?'"

The play "took on a whole new urgency" for Elizabeth Marvel, who plays the morphine-addicted mother Mary going through relapse. "We had sort of a twin crisis happening and still do," she said. "We had the Covid pandemic, and we also had an opioid crisis, of the death count of people that we've lost to overdose." 

Whereas the rest of the cast chiefly described this Long Day's Journey production as a Covid-centric play, Marvel described it as O'Neill wrote it: a story of addiction, first and foremost. "They're all addicts, but she is the core crisis addict at the moment," Marvel said. "She is the one holding them all emotionally hostage. So there is no fluttering hands and wispy voice. She's a beast. She's a beast, and she has one objective, which is to get high.

"[The play] is an honest representation of a mother who is addicted to heroin. And that is what it is, and we are looking at that straight on," she continued. "There is nothing romantic about it. There is nothing charming about it. It is brutal ... So I feel a responsibility to that honesty."

Marvel didn't draw much on her own 2020 as she approached the part. Unlike the Tyrones, Marvel's family grew closer during their quarantine in the Vermont countryside, where they "suddenly were eating three meals a day together at a table, and sitting and having conversation and taking walks together and going for swims together." They'd never had the time before, with Marvel and her husband as consistently working actors.

Time became a welcome upside for Marvel's family when their industry came to a standstill, but not so much for James, the character played by Marvel's real-life husband Bill Camp. O'Neill wrote James, Mary's husband, as a successful actor who's played one role all his life. Without that career, he doesn't know what to do with himself — a question many actors, even the most versatile, asked themselves in 2020. That resonated most with Camp as he approached Long Day's Journey into Night.

"There are traits in [James] that I'm finding now given his life as an actor, but an actor who's in a point of stasis. ... He's in a place that he's not going anywhere. He's stuck," Camp said. "I'm still trying to figure out, what is that in 2020? Who is that? As a very successful actor, nonetheless, people still come and see him, but he's not doing anything different. What is that public persona that he has of himself that he sells? He's obviously very good at self promotion in the world. But then at home, how does that change and who's that guy privately?"

Between Covid-19, its affiliated crises like addiction, and the arts industry shutdown, O'Hara's Long Day's Journey into Night covers much of what made 2020 so frightening. The play is no longer a story of a distant family's issues; it's a story of the world's collective fears and troubles right now. "It's going to be potentially intense for people because we are not giving historical distance," Marvel acknowledged. "We are not setting it in a drawing room at the turn of the century. I'm not wearing a corset with a white wig in a bun. I'm wearing sweatpants and I am like this, so they won't have the arm's length to hold the play at."

But as Jason Bowen, who plays the alcoholic elder son Jamie, said, the experience can hopefully be cathartic, too. "[Audiences will] get an accurate reflection of what our shared experience did for a specific family, and they can walk away knowing that for that one family, there are millions of other families that had that, if not that same experience, they had a version of this."

Get tickets to Long Day's Journey Into Night on New York Theatre Guide.