Susan Monts-Bologna | Performer of the week
One of the great roles of modern theater, drug addict Mary Tyrone is the stand-out character in Eclipse Theatre Company’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s landmark drama A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Susan Monts-Bologna captures Mary’s desperate loneliness and crushing addiction, giving a chilling performance that builds in intensity throughout the piece. Growing up, Monts-Bologna’s family traveled constantly, and she quickly became accustomed to the gypsy lifestyle most actors find themselves faced with. She began pursuing theater in high school, then received her bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University before studying comedy with Del Close at Second City. With a recommendation from Close, she continued her studies at the Goodman School of Drama (now the Theatre School at DePaul), then moved to New York City where she met her late husband. They returned to the Midwest to raise their son, and three years ago, Monts-Bologna firmly reestablished herself in Chicago. She talks to us about her first experience with the play, the pressures of stepping into the iconic role, and how she personalized Mary’s experience.
What was your first experience with A Long Day’s Journey into Night? What was your reaction to it?
Dense. I thought to myself, “Oh my gosh, how do you possibly?” And yet, very exciting as an actor. I knew at a very young age that even though I looked like the ingénue kind of part, that I wouldn’t come into my own until my 50s or 60s. So it was a role that I kind of put to the back of my head, thinking, “It’ll come, it’ll come.” And I was thrilled to death when this opportunity came up. And fought pretty hard for it, too. God love Nat [Swift, director] for finally casting me. Long Day’s Journey has been an amazing journey, and continues to be to this day. It grows every day. Grows and changes and morphs and develops, and the discoveries are just endless. Which makes it a very challenging piece, in that regard, to do. But look at who I’m playing off of. Talk about gifts, to have such a great cast.
Is there any pressure stepping into a role that has been played by a lot of iconic performers? Or does that not enter into your head at all?
Sure it enters your head. Of course it does. How could you not? Any role that has been done that someone somewhere—especially by a star, where you’re going to hear about it—someone somewhere along the line says, “OK, the definitive performance.” It’s like trying to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Of course if you get cast in that role you’re going to think, “Oh my gosh.” But in the end you just kind of go, “Fine. I have to start as if this is a brand new script and I am approaching this script and I just have to let all of these lines and everything I can learn about it inform my instruments, and look at the people across from me, and go.” And that’s basically what you do. And ideally you come up with something that is very honest and true to you. I have to say I have not seen a lot of productions of this.
I’ve only seen just an excerpt here and there of [Katharine] Hepburn’s film version. Of course, you can’t really go by film, because it’s such a different medium. They can do things on film that you just can’t do on stage—and vice-versa. So that becomes kind of a moot point. There was another version, there was a Canadian version, but I didn’t have much response to the woman who played Mary. I didn’t see me in what she was doing, so it didn’t elicit a response from me, from an actor’s point of view. Most of what I did was research, reading books and articles that have been written about Eugene [O’Neill]. And of course you do all that and you throw it out the window, because you’re not doing the O’Neills, you’re doing the Tyrones. You have to do the research. You know it’s there, let it inform. And then throw it away. And whatever stays, stays, and whatever doesn’t wasn’t meant to be.
How did you work to make Mary’s addiction real and personal to you?
I don’t know that I did any one particular specific thing. I think I was just so—we had a conversation. It was in the first week, I think it was in the readings. And Nat turned around to me and said “This is going to be a real journey, trying to figure out what physically happens to you in terms of this addiction.” And I jokingly said, “Not really. Put a piece of chocolate cake in the middle of that table and see what happens to me.” And I discovered later that every once in a while that image would pop back into my head. And of course being a woman and always trying to be aware of my weight, and et cetera, and something gets set out that I go, “Oh god, I want,” and know that it’s not good for your health, and you try and tell yourself that, and knowing that it’s not good for you physically. It was amazing how that, at least in part, was able to translate.
For me, I think the bigger case in point was the love and the disconnect from love. The need for that was almost comparable to that of a junkie, and the sensing when my sons and my husband were slipping away from me. But I also think for me, a big part of Mary was discovering where she is stronger than I think, and I don’t know because I never met the man, O’Neill wrote. I just found Mary very intelligent, and I found the vacuum that she ended up living in made it very easy for me to understand her depression and her desperation for contact. So I think I translated it more to that than an actual injection need. So it became a very emotional need. Intellectual-emotional need, because I think part of Mary’s problem was there was no stimulation at all. And I talk about not talking about anything serious, just gossip, but I think Mary really needs more. I think I/Mary really needed more than that. I needed to be talking about those books we talk about, and those people we talk about at the beginning of the play when we’re all laughing and I’m enjoying myself so much. I need that kind of stimulation and I don’t think I ever got it. I don’t think it was considered important for women back then.
What has been the biggest challenge of the role thus far?
It’s such a dense, all-comprehensive role. Part of me just wants to immediately say the lines alone. But I think discovering my mental journey, and once I began to find my mental journey from things going well, I’ve come home from the sanitorium, I’m okay, things are starting to flicker, I’m starting to feel that itch. And where those mental jumps happen to me—who was looking at me where and why and how did that make me feel. I guess for me it was the mental journey I had to go on. Because the lines alone don’t take you there. They just jump to wherever Mary’s mind goes. To wherever my mind would go to, whatever memory or feeling or response or reaction. Just sitting back and trusting that if I just kept looking at the four people that I was playing opposite of, that when they looked at me and how they looked at me and how they said things would elicit a response in me, just trusting that that would happen. Once I realized that, then it became easy. But the initial part of it was going, oh my God, how do I get from here to here? How do I make this journey that the whole play’s about? From this vital woman to someone who is just not of this Earth?
Why do you think this play still resonates so strongly with modern audiences?
I think the dysfunction of the family, and in spite of that how they stick together. People see the pain and the dysfunction and yet they feel the love (hopefully) when they see the production anyway. And I think so many people can watch this play and understand things that they are feeling in their own family. Frustrations. And yet they keep coming back because the love and the need are so strong. I think O’Neill did a brilliant job of portraying the enabling dysfunction within a family. I don’t think there’s anyone out there who has a family of more than two people that does not in some way identify with that. And yet, there are no villains. You don’t have to walk away and choose. They’re just human beings.