Q&A: Playwright David Auburn and actors he directs in Court's production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Eugene O’Neill’s epic family drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a modern classic, respected by theatre audiences around the globe for 60 years. The play opens at Court Theatre on March 10 and runs through April 10. Audiences are exposed to the complexities of the Tyrone family for a few hours during the performance, but the cast and crew must come to intimately understand these characters over weeks and months. During rehearsals, Court Theatre’s Shelby Krick spoke with director David Auburn, AB’91, actor Harris Yulin (Tyrone), and actor Mary Beth Fisher (Mary) about the process of preparing for Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

What brought each of you to this production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

David: I imagine everyone who works in theatre wants to tackle this play at some point in their career. I thought I might get a chance to do it in 20 or 30 years, but Harris Yulin, who’s a friend, approached me about the show and said the role of Tyrone was on his bucket list. I’d recently directed a production of Anna Christie and was eager to explore more O’Neill, so we brought the idea to Court.

Harris: Well, I have to play old guys now—no more young guys! Having recently tussled with Willy Loman and Big Daddy, I needed, for stability, to try the third leg of the triangle, James Tyrone. Tyrone is a very rich character, as they all are. He’s very textured, very contradictory, and finally, very interesting. The role calls on many things in one. You discover things about yourself—things that might surprise you—by taking on challenging projects like this play. Even at this age, it’s possible to continue to make those discoveries.

Mary Beth: I came into Long Day’s Journey Into Night via Harris Yulin, one of the best actors I’ve worked with in my life. I really think that Mary Tyrone is a role that every actress wants to try at some point—and I say try because I think you could probably work on this role for four or five years and still find new things. I think it’s enormously challenging, and fun, and wild, and kooky... and all the things I think everyone wants to see in the theater and every actor wants to try on stage.

David, as an alumnus of the University of Chicago, what’s it like to come back to Hyde Park to work on this play?

David: I came to the University of Chicago in ’87 not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and left knowing that I wanted to spend it working in the theatre. The work I saw while I was living in Chicago had everything to do with that. So returning here feels very much like coming full circle. This play is now considered a classic, and it’s regularly performed for theatre communities around the world. How is Court’s production going to be different from other productions of Long Day’s Journey Into Night?

One amazing thing about this play is that its setting actually exists—you can visit the Monte Cristo cottage in New London, Conn., where O’Neill and his family lived in 1912. You can’t just walk into Stella and Stanley’s apartment. When I visited, it was striking to see how small the room is where the play takes place. You can sense the claustrophobia, the intimacy. We’ve tried to capture that on the set here at Court, creating a hothouse where you can feel the tension build.

Mary Beth, why is the role of Mary Tyrone something you decided to tackle at this moment?

Mary Beth: Mary Tyrone is a woman of enormous contradiction; she is one of the most complexly written female roles I’ve ever come across. She’s incredibly intelligent, she’s really well educated, she thinks of herself as spiritual and pious—and yet she’s described as coquettish and a bit of a rogue. She’s also in an enormous amount of pain. She’s lonely and full of regret, trapped in her past, which she cannot escape. She descends into drug addiction, tries to pull herself out, relapses, and again tries to pull herself out.

She’s a person I recognize because I grew up in a family, which I think many people can relate to, that worked through these problems with addictions. It’s a family most people recognize, and for me it’s an opportunity to exorcise personal demons while exercising compassion for people in my family and other people’s families who suffer from these issues.

Long Day’s Journey deals with complex issues of mental health and illness. What kind of preparation did you do to approach this play?

Mary Beth: I spent a good deal of time researching addiction, researching what morphine is—Mary Tyrone’s drug of choice. Mary, over the course of this play, is going through various stages of using the drug, and each one of those physical states has accompanying symptoms. So I researched how addiction works, the psychology behind it, and the emotional reasons and pains that come with it.

Dr. Michael Marcangelo, a psychiatrist from the University of Chicago who specializes in addiction, came to speak with us, too. He read the play, which was really great because he could talk to us about how the Tyrone family unit functioned as a group of enablers—encouraging and tolerating one another’s using. It was so useful to hear about the effects of addiction among the Tyrone men, and how addiction is really, truly a family disease. Dr. Marcangelo allowed us to look underneath the physical problems at the profound emotional and spiritual issues that keep the Tyrone family wrapped up in regrets and traumas of the past. It showed how their love for each other and their need to forgive each other was propelled by their need to be intimate as a family.

What’s been the most surprising part of this process so far?

Harris: The most surprising thing is the play itself. Not having performed it but being slightly familiar with it, it starts to live in surprising ways—mysteries upon mysteries, unsounded depths. It’s a wonderful problem, and you try to solve it. You have a little idea about this and that, and sometimes it works and it’s very exciting. That’s true of every play, but this play is a mountain, so there’s just even further to go.

Mary Beth: For me, the greatest surprise about this play is how much richness and complexity there is in the relationships. There are unbelievable surprises in the play, alliances that change—you think two people are aligned against this person and that switches, really turns on a dime. Battle lines are drawn and redrawn constantly in the most hairpin turn, surprising ways. You can also have the most intensely emotional scene happening and someone enters, starts saying or doing something completely unrelated to the moment before, and there’s just an explosive laugh. I think O’Neill very wisely injected a ton of wit and humor based on his observations of human behavior, foibles and weaknesses.

David: I think I knew this in some way beforehand, but I don’t think I really appreciated how packed, how dense Long Day’s Journey is. Most plays have, say, two or three really key, emotionally climactic moments. This play has about 50. It’s thrilling how hard this play makes you work—both for me as the director and for the actors as well.

Harris, Long Day’s Journey is widely considered O’Neill’s masterwork. Does that fact make approaching the play intimidating?

Harris: Yes, sure, it’s a mountain! The question for us is do we have time to climb the mountain? Or rather, how far up the mountain can we get in the time allowed? I can’t imagine a better company of colleagues to go climbing with—I mean everybody involved in this production. With patience, guidance, compassion and sympathy, I think we’ll all come together at the end with—well, maybe not a happy result—but something very special.

To order tickets to Long Day's Journey Into Night or other plays in Court Theatre's 2016 lineup, visit the theater's ticket web page.