Its spry new form, animated by some striking video-projection work by Yee Eun Nam, cannily revises a text that has loomed large in the American theater for over 60 years. “O’Neill has always been at the forefront of the teaching of playwriting,” says O’Hara, who studied drama at Tufts and directing at Columbia. “He was always one of the ‘old, dead, white men,’ as they say, that we had to read, and because his work dealt with family and darkness, I’ve always been attracted to his language and to his biography.” On an artists retreat about a decade ago, O’Hara looked at Long Day’s Journey—easily O’Neill’s most darkly personal piece of writing—for the first time since college. “I read it and was blown away,” he says. “It challenges not only because of the limits of it, but also the places that the characters have to go.”
For Marvel’s part, it was an early encounter with O’Neill that made her want to become an actor. “The first play that got me really interested was A Touch of the Poet, which I saw in London with Vanessa Redgrave,” she recalls. “I also did an O’Neill monologue from the very obscure play Strange Interlude to get into Juilliard, which I think they were very shocked by.”
The idea to do Long Day’s Journey had been knocking around in her head for a while. “I do this with plays—I’ll get sort of obsessed,” she says. It was Marvel’s friend and longtime collaborator Jim Nicola, the artistic director of New York Theatre Workshop, who connected her with O’Hara. (Though she had seen his productions of Slave Play and Bootycandy, Marvel and O’Hara did not know each other personally.) “We started talking in March [of 2020], when the pandemic really hit, so we were all sort of squirreled away in front of computers,” she says. “He and I had a series of Zooms, and we never met in person until we were already committed to the production.”
When their conversation turned to Long Day’s Journey, “we were instantly like, How do we make this play speak to us right now?” says O’Hara. In time, a shocking statistic from the pandemic emerged: In 2020, more Americans died from drug overdoses than ever before. Mary Tyrone, the play’s troubled matriarch, has been a morphine addict ever since the difficult birth of her younger son. Add to that the backdrop of infectious disease (Edmund is consumptive) and deep familial tension, and Long Day’s Journey seemed a perfect vehicle for the concerns of the present. “The opioid crisis, the pandemic and isolation and quarantining—the idea of people going back home and the sort of a failure to launch—all of those things were very resonant during 2020 for us,” O’Hara adds.