One might think it difficult for such a morose collection of people to be thoroughly captivating for three hours, but that's what happens in this splendid production by Ensemble Theatre. True to the company's moniker, director Licia Colombi has crafted a smooth group presentation from five gifted actors, with one incisive performance so varied and engrossing, it's worth the price of admission -- plus parking and a couple shots of whiskey at the refreshment counter.
And the cocktail would be appropriate, since this single day in the life of the Tyrone tribe is fueled in many ways by the flow of liquor. In the Tyrones' slightly shabby summer home in 1912, the family has recently welcomed back mother Mary from a sanitarium, where she was being treated for her painkiller jones. Ignoring the shallow bravado of her family's support for her recovery, Mary reflexively begins slicing away at her sad situation. Noting that her husband James won't pay to have things done right around the house, she sighs, "It's just as well we don't have friends."
Matching his mother's vulnerability, erstwhile seaman and would-be poet Edmund is awaiting word from a doctor regarding his "summer cold," which everyone knows is much more serious. While Mom is upstairs trying to sneak her next hit of morphine and Edmund is coughing his life away into a folded handkerchief, James and Jamie lock horns in booze-enabled arguments that clearly have been going on for years: Jamie blaming his dad's penny-pinching for his mom's agonies, James berating his son for being an unmotivated lush.
As patriarch James, Robert Hawkes flashes anger in brutal mini-bursts at his sons, but is most effective when responding, helplessly, to his wife's decline. Andrew Cruse subtly contorts his body under the ravages of consumption, and hits a high note when regaling his father with seafaring memories. In the juicy role of Jamie, John Kolibab is lacerating when he describes to Edmund how he both loves and hates him. And in the small role of maid Cathleen, Eileen Canepari is comically frank and brazen.
But the evening truly belongs to Annie Kitral, who invests convent-educated Mary with so many flickering changes of attitude and tempo that one is left slack-jawed. Whether she's neurotically patting her hair into place or almost bashfully sliding another knife into a loved one's back ("I know you didn't mean to humiliate me," she says of her husband's purchase of a déclassé used car), Kitral fully embodies O'Neill's "ghost within a ghost" and makes this production pulse with the misery of dashed hopes.