Playwright: Eugene O'Neill. At: Eclipse Theatre Company at the Athenaeum, 2936 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: 773-935-6875; www.eclipsetheatre.com; $28. Runs through: Dec. 9
An aphorism frequently heard among therapists in response to dysfunctional families suggests that irrational behavior in one person often breeds irrational behavior in those forced to interact with themin other words, crazy people make sane people act crazy.
What makes the Tyrone family crazy is guilt: James Tyrone's guilt over the obsessive thrift contributing to his wife and son's ill health. There's Mary Tyrone's guilt over her misguided mothering skills. In addition, there's elder son Jamie's guilt over his jealousy of younger brother, Edmund, whose guilt stems from his inability to fulfill the promise of salvation assigned him by his troubled kin.
The single late summer day described in Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical posthumously produced play (in which he casts himself as the sibling who died in childhood) differs from the others in the news that Edmund has contracted tuberculosis and Mary has resumed ingesting addictive medications. Before nightfall, we will watch the Tyrones struggle to deny their culpability, real or imagined, for bringing these misfortunes upon the householdchiefly through projecting blame onto each other, thus circulating the responsibility for everybody's unhappiness among them like a contagious infection.
The tendency of most theater companies essaying this much-analyzed drama is to depict its characters as weary and enervated, chafing under the burdens of their own hopelessness and helplessness. However, Eclipse Theater doesn't go that route. Rejecting academic classical-tragedy and "American Chekhov" paradigms, director Nathaniel Swift and his cast present us with a clan whose copious consumption of sedativesmorphine for mother Mary, and whiskey for her consortsmasks their simmering anger and despair, resulting in vigorous and surprisingly fast-paced performances. This atmosphere of exigency is facilitated by Kevin Hagan's wing-and-border parlor, its two-dimensionality on the small studio stage offering no refuge for Stanislavksian posturing, but instead highlighting text long-obscured even in repeat viewings.
Patrick Blashill, an actor not usually associated with such weighty roles, acquits himself admirably in the role of the stoical James, while Joe McCauley conveys the vulnerability of the Jamie we will meet in O'Neill's Moon For The Misbegotten, and Stephen Dale lends Edmund a slow-burning intensity. It is Susan Monts-Bologna's Mary Tyrone who commands the stage from her first entrance, however, riveting our attention and sympathy as she teeters between assertion and submission, fiery rebellion and wistful nostalgia. Only when she is absent do the men have anything to say.