Splendid black version of O'Neill drama

The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too. WE all try to lie out of that but life won't let us." Those words, spoken by the troubled Mary Tyrone, sum up a major and disturbing theme of "Long Day's Journey Into Night." For its characters, as perhaps for Eugene O'Neill when he wrote it, memory of the past seems to lurk behind every present action. If not fought feee of, this shadowy influence will not only continue to shape the here-and-now, but to determine the future as well.

This unhappy situation -- doubly sad when the past is a nighmare of inadequacy and guilt -- knows no boundaries of color or class. In the new Joseph Papp presentation of the play at the Public/Anspacher Theater, the performers are black. I had thought this might enhance the poignancy of some passages by adding all of black-American history (if only subliminally) into the tragic balance.

But it turns out that the dark beauty of O'Neill's drama supersedes such considerations. In a production as powerful as this, we care most strongly and most immediately for the people before us on the stage. Their histories and dilemmas become so real and so involving that there's not much energy left for more general speculations, except perhaps later, after the lights have gone down on the last extraordinary act.

Though all the performers are splendid, the evening belongs largely to Gloria Foster, who gives a stunningly complete portrayal, right down to the crabbed fingers that are both the symbol and the excuse for Mary's human shortcomings. Her progress through the play is consistently touching, from the sunlit beginning to the gathering shadows and ultimate gloom of the succeeding scenes.

Earle Hyman is almost as imposing as she, bringing a canny mixture of dignity and vulnerability to the aging James Tyrone. Peter Francis-James manages to be likable, boyish, and doomed -- a tricky but affecting combination --as O'Neill's surrogate character, Edmund.

And Al Freeman Jr. practically tears the stage apart with his galumphingly irresponsible Jamie, in the most memorably energetic performance I've seen for quite a while. Samantha McKoy lacks personality in her first brief appearances as the maid Kathleen, but comes alive during her later bantering with MAry.

In sum, everyone is right on target, at least most of the time -- except when the senior cast members choose to mumble just as a subway's rumbling fills the hall, a small but bothersome matter that might be taken more seriously by actors , if only for the sake of their audience.

Geraldine Fitzgerals is the director who weaves the performances into a tight and intricate web. A veteran of roles in many O'Neill productions -- including four "Journeys" in the part of Mary -- she moves the play at a clip so fast that a single intermission seems quite enough; so much for the notion that O'Neill evenings must invariably string themselves out until four acts feel like eight.

The last "Long Day's Journey" I saw was the Jason Robards production a few years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which didn't even please Robards very much. More recently, an avant-garde distillation of the drama appeared in the remarkable "Point Judith" by the adventurous Wooster Group. I think the play should be given much more often than it is. Somehow it's gotten the reputation of a windy and repetitious work, laborious for all concerned, including the audience. The new Papp production proves that isn't so. This is a drama for all seasons, all times, and -- the evidence is clear -- all races. Served by a gifted cast, its power is still enormous.

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