Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night" on PBS-TV's "Great Performances." 

A Trip Worth Taking

Eugene O'Neill's autobiographical "Long Day's Journey into Night" is not for everyone. But for those who cherish American theater and will cheerfully spend three hours watching a tortuous tale about appalling family conflict, the payoff will be deeply satisfying.

America's only playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1936) and a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, O'Neill wrote "Long Day's Journey into Night" in 1939 when he was 50. In this autobiographical work, he attempted to exorcise the family demons that had haunted him since childhood. The version that will air on PBS-TV's "Great Performances" Sunday, Sept. 19, at 9 p.m. is adapted from the 1994 Stratford Festival revival in Canada. It features the cast from that production, which played to sold-out houses for two years.

The play is set in August 1912 in New London, Conn., in the Tyrone family living room. The titular journey begins after breakfast and ends well after midnight, when oppressive fog has once again shrouded the house. With a heart-rending lack of sympathy, O'Neill examines his own dysfunctional family. His miserly father (William Hutt), a once-great Shakespearean actor has succumbed to the money he can earn by playing over and over again a popular role in a meaningless play that audiences love. His once-beautiful mother (Martha Henry) is now a mentally and physically crippled morphine addict, a condition brought about by the loss of a child and, more important, by the loss of a life she once dreamed of. His older brother (Peter Donaldson) squandered an acting profession for the love of alcohol and cheap women. And O'Neill himself (Tom McCamus) is in the early stages of battling the tuberculosis that hospitalized him for months in 1912 (time that O'Neill used, not so incidentally, to begin writing plays).

During the course of the long day, the Tyrones lay waste to one another, baring the darkest parts of their psyches and unleashing fear, guilt, anger and accusations from which it is difficult to believe they can ever recover. "Who wants to see life as it is if he can help it?" O'Neill's character asks. Who indeed? And in this brilliant and soul-searing production, there is no chance that anything will be seen except for exactly what it

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