A Long Day's Journey: Well
Worth Every Step
By Karen Howard-Joly
"There is no problem that is not improved by
and no effort that is too paltry to be worth undertaking."
--- Sam Waterston
The appearance of Law & Order's Sam Waterston on a talk show is as rare as Larry King without suspenders. Needless to say, as a die-hard Sam fan, when any announcement is made that THE MAN will be doing an interview, I'm going to do my best to be there. Such was the case in April of this year when it was announced that Mr. Waterston would be a guest on ABC's The View. I watched with delight as Sam wowed not only the audience, but the four female hosts, with his charm, his wit, and his easy going manner. I kept wondering to myself, though, what his purpose was for appearing. There's always a purpose. Actors plug their shows, their movies, their co-authored books. What, I asked myself during this ten minute or so stint, was Sam's motive. (Hmm, sounds like a Jack McCoy question.) They touched a little on Law & Order, but not the hardcore sell (no episode clips). Nothing jumped out at me until that moment the subject turned to his kids and acting. And there it was: Asked about his actor son, Sam said, "He and I are going to do a play at ...the Syracuse Stage in Syracuse...a Long Day's Journey Into Night — the other greatest American play besides Death of a Salesman, maybe...."
Thus began the idea for my own long day's journey. A seed was planted and quickly took root. Sam in a play — not in New York City. Translation: not expensive. Sam said, "...this spring..." but since it was already April, I was figuring that he might be meaning summer (as it turned out, it was both). Translation: no school...I'm ON VACATION! Sam said "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" — Eugene O'Neill. Translation: A damn good — and long — play. Bottom line: Sam Waterston, live, on stage, in a great play, somewhere I could probably afford. Translation: I WANTED TO GO!
I got online and e-mailed my cyberpal, Anne. Yes, she'd seen the interview. Her take: "I'm thinking field trip!" Hmm, that would be two of us. Then we talked to Debbie in PA...and she wanted in as well. We researched the dates, found one that suited us all, and the only things left were tickets and a hotel. I told them that I would handle that part.
Since tickets were to go on sale May 1st, and since I am a teacher and it was a weekday, I did what all rational teachers who need to buy tickets do, I took the day off. It took me thirty minutes of redial on both my regular and cell phones to finally reach the Carrier Dome. Once I had my order placed, however, I got to chatting with the friendly ticket agent and confided that I was going to be coming from Kentucky for the play...and "do you know of any hotels?" She did. She gave me the name of one she considered "smaller, old, but a very nice place to stay and very close to the theater." Within the hour, I had looked up the hotel on-line, phoned them, and guaranteed our room for Tuesday, June 20, 2000. This was getting downright exciting.
Now came the personal challenge. I had to make airline reservations so I could get there. Imagine my dismay when I found that the cheapest round trip fare would be $588! I about died. I was totally depressed, thinking that I'd have to resort to driving the 13 hours to Syracuse. Imagine my surprise (again!) when I found an e-mail message waiting for me the next day on my school computer. I was being invited to be the co-director of a writer's workshop for middle schoolers to take place in July. My salary for teaching would be $625.00. I booked with Delta that evening. Syracuse and Sam were getting closer to being a reality. The countdown was officially on.
I spent the days between May 1st and June 20th wondering about a number of things. First of all, I wondered if I'd actually get to meet Sam and have the chance to get my printer-generated color picture of Jack McCoy autographed. (Hey, I like my picture...it's a very good picture...you know, the one where he's got his jacket slung over his shoulder? Popular picture among Jack fans.) Heck, forget that...my biggest question was whether or not I'd even be able to see Sam from the seats we got. I'd seen the diagram of the theater, but who can tell with those things? Then, a colleague of mine at school, one whose friendship, support, and advice I value tremendously, suggested that I take one of my fan-fic stories along, "Just in case you meet him." So, I wondered what I should print out and take. (I opted to take two, "Brother's Keeper" and "A Nice, Relaxing Weekend.") Now, I know these may seem like trivial things, but they did the job. They occupied my mind and kept me sane until the day I'd been waiting for finally came.
That morning, as I boarded the small Comair jet at Lexington's Bluegrass Airport, I overheard the flight attendant say, "Oh, this plane is brand new. We brought her in last night on her first flight." A warning bell sounded in my brain. It told me that new didn't necessarily mean good or better. Sometimes new meant pain in the ass. In this case, that assessment was accurate. Our departure time to Cincinnati of 9 AM came...and went. An announcement was made around 9:15 about "computer" problems. By 9:45, we were told to deplane. Other arrangements would be made for us. I was upset, but not yet panicked. My connecting flight to Syracuse wasn't scheduled to leave Cincinnati until 11:05 AM. I still had time to get there — barely.
I was sent, by Yellow Cab, to the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati International Airport. We arrived ten minutes past take-off time. No one bothered to call ahead and have them hold my flight. By now, I was thoroughly pissed. As I stood at the Delta ticket counter and heard the agent say that the earliest flight I could get to Syracuse would depart at 3:10 PM (it was now 11:20) and arrive in Syracuse around 5:00 PM, I lost it.
"You don't seem to understand," I said, fighting back tears. "I have tickets to see Sam Waterston on stage in Syracuse this evening at 7:00 PM. I still have to get to the airport, find a way to my hotel, check in, change clothes, get some dinner and make it to the theater on time! Not to mention, my friends will be wondering WHERE THE HELL I AM when they get to the Comair gate at 11:38 and don't find me there!"
Well, God bless the lady whose name remains a mystery to me. She did the best she could. No other airline could get me there quicker, so I had to settle for the 3:10 flight. To help me out, though, she sent a teletype to Syracuse informing Anne and Debbie of my delay. (As it turned out, they didn't get that, but did get a call from my husband, explaining everything — thank God for my cell phone!) She also issued me a $6.00 voucher for food after I told her that the play was four hours long and it didn't look like I was going to get to eat before it began. She said, "Honey, you have a good lunch on Delta." I did.
The flight into Syracuse actually landed on time. Having never seen either Anne, nor Debbie before, I anxiously gazed to the end of the ramp. I spied Anne immediately — okay, hard to miss the only person who is standing at the entrance to the ramp, checking out every deplaning passenger, trying to figure out which one is your cyberpal. Plus, she'd described herself quite adequately. We did the "Karen?" "Anne?" thing, hugged, then went out among the rest of the masses to find Debbie.
The fun thing was, it was like we'd been friends for years. After chatting, e-mailing, and actually talking by phone (to Anne, but not Deb), it was like we had known each other. (I've got to say right now that I feel blessed to have met such good people.) So, we scooted on out of the airport and, with Debbie's able directions, made it safely to our hotel. By 6:15 we were dressed and ready for the theater. We stopped off briefly at a pizza place across the street from Syracuse Stage, had a slice and something to drink, then headed on over for our date with Sam.
From the moment we stepped into the lobby of the theater, I drank in every piece of detail I could. This was not easy. My mind was going a million and one directions, my heart was pounding, and I found myself finally having to just stop and breathe. We all noticed the promotional pictures that had been posted on one wall, so strolled over to take a look. My heart started pounding all over again. Black and white photos from the play. Sam in character and costume! Great pictures. Yeah, part of me wanted to snatch them right off that wall and jam them into my purse, but my conscience — and the fear of arrest and prosecution — got the better of me.
Noticing that the doors had just opened, we decided to go on in and take our seats. As I turned the corner that would take me into the Archbold theater proper, I found myself pleasantly surprised. The theater was small, intimate and looked as if there weren't a bad seat in the place. Our row, J, ten rows from the stage, was as good as any. It was easy to see that the acting would be done practically on top of the audience. Joy! So, Debbie, Anne, and I settled in, leafed through our programs, gushed about Sam, and kept ourselves occupied with fun, engaging chatter as we awaited the opening curtain.
The lights dimmed right on time. Music began to play in stereo throughout the room. And here they came. Stage left (for novices, that's to your right as you face the stage), through the door, just as O'Neill wrote it...Mary and James Tyrone, his arm around her waist. My God! A huge smile lit my face and tears came to my eyes. There he was. Live. I barely heard Sam's, "You're a fine armful now, Mary, with those twenty pounds you've gained." I was thinking about all it had taken to get me into that seat at the Archbold theater. My thoughts went to my seventh grade students, with whom I shared, all year long, my love for Law & Order, Jack McCoy, and Sam Waterston — and the enthusiasm with which they wished me the best on my summer trip as we ended our school year. I was thinking about a dream and about the passions that can drive us to step out and do something other people might deem "nuts." When Sam Waterston made his way across to stand stage right — practically at the edge — I realized a moment I will treasure the rest of my life. My inner voice said, "You're here. You're sitting in a theater in Syracuse, New York and that is Sam Waterston, acting, right here in front of you." What a thrilling moment!
I eagerly devoured everything after that beginning. Four hours and two intermissions went by quicker than a Randy Johnson fastball. The play itself is a masterpiece (Sam was right) of the American theater. If you were to tell someone that they'd be mesmerized by a four hour play in which the set never changes, includes a cast of only five people, and is about a dysfunctional, quarreling, unhappy family — well, they'd probably laugh in your face. Yet, here it was. Through the humor, pathos, fury, and passion depicted by O'Neill and superbly interpreted by this fine cast, the audience was presented a love letter. It didn't come in a neat package, nicely tied up for the recipient. It came at the expense of the lives and relationships of the Tyrones — of dreams deferred, of hopes lost, of futures uncertain, of physical pain and suffering — and it was given to us so we might use it in comparison to our own. It was a magical gift.
For four hours, Sam Waterston became James Tyrone. He made us laugh — both with him and at him depending on the situation, whether it be a drunken James, climbing on the game table to turn off the chandelier lights one at a time, or some smart remark he directed at a family member. He made us cringe and fume at his stinginess, his biting words, his seeming selfishness. He made us cry with his soliloquy of a childhood lost to poverty. His performance pounded home my belief that the man's true gift lies in live theater. To only see him as Jack McCoy, is to miss three-fourths of the man and his talent.
As for the rest of the cast of A Long Day's Journey Into Night, not one performance was lacking. Elizabeth Franz's Mary Tyrone was riveting. Her chemistry with Waterston was delightful, especially in the early scenes when Mary and James are bantering back and forth about his snoring. Her final scene — the one that ends the play — was haunting, heartbreaking, and firmly attached the bow to the top of the special package that is LDJ. John Slattery's Jamie Tyrone came across with just the right tone of resentment, bitterness, sarcasm, charm, wit, and humor. James Waterston's Edmund was fascinating and it is easy to see that he will be making a name for himself one of these days. Edmund's confrontation with his father over his commitment to a sanitarium was heart wrenching and the dynamics supplied by real father and son were captivating. As for newcomer Kim Gatewood, hers is a name to remember. She played Cathleen with the timing and attitude of a seasoned comedienne. It was very hard to believe that this was her first professional role. When the curtain went down, I truly wished that I'd booked my return flight for later Wednesday evening. It would have been a treat to catch Wednesday's matinee and do it all over again.
I hesitate to say that what happened after the play overshadowed the experience of the play itself, but it came close. Exiting the theater, we moved to the sidewalk in front of the famous "blue awning" that had been touted at Michael's Law & Order Message Board as the place to meet the actors. Anne, Debbie and I chatted, not knowing how long we might have to wait. I stood with my back to the street, facing the glass doors to the theater. Suddenly, I noticed that John, James, and a pretty blonde were heading out from inside; behind James walked his dad. I looked at Anne, who had her back to the theater and said, "It's showtime."
As the four emerged from the building, I looked at Sam and said, "I've come all the way from Kentucky to see you tonight."
Smiling broadly, he answered, "And...you made it!" Which, of course, prompted me to immediately tell him about how I almost hadn't made it. Then Anne told him about how her car had broken down the day before and she almost hadn't made it. So, Sam looks at Debbie and asks, "And what's your story?"
Debbie says, "My husband brought me." And everyone laughed.
And I realized that everything I'd ever read or heard about him was true. He was so genuine, so easy-going that we immediately felt comfortable enough to share our experiences with this perfect stranger. Not only did the three men accommodate us by signing pictures and copies of the play, and by posing for group photos, they thoroughly entertained us with their banter over who had the best or sloppiest signature.
I started it by looking at James's signature in my book and comparing it to his father's. I looked over at Sam and said, "His is shorter than yours."
Sam said, in his best McCoy defensive tone, "Well, that's because he only signs half his name!" Then he shot James that raised eyebrow look. (I about died!) James just smiled.
John Slattery then signed my book and looked over my shoulder at Sam's signature. He then started ragging on Sam, "Yours isn't much better...it says Sam blah-blah-blah."
To which Sam replied, "Hey, I have a great signature!" (Yes, he does.)
After taking the pictures, we thanked them profusely for their time, congratulated them once more on their performances and we all began to depart. Only thing was, we were all going the same direction. Yes, we were all staying at the same hotel. Okay...dream of a lifetime (short of actually finding a writing job in television)...I am walking down East Genesee Street in Syracuse, NY, 11:30 at night with Sam Waterston, James Waterston, his fiancee, and John Slattery.
Now, I'm sure it would have been at this point that most actors would have excused themselves, or walked faster, or done something else to ditch three fans. Sam did nothing of the kind. He walked at a normal pace, allowed us to accompany him, and listened to us, responding as needed.
I got to tell him how much I appreciated him, not only as a fine actor, but as a fine human being...for his humanitarian efforts. Debbie and I both said that we'd never heard or read a bad word about him.
Sam laughed and replied, "That's because they only print the good stuff."
Anne said, "You're so humble...such a modest person."
Sam leaned down to her and laughed, "Oh, yeah...I'm real modest." We all laughed and kept walking.
As we approached an intersection, I got his full attention when I began, "Honestly, I don't think you have any idea..." (I remember his looking at me intently) "of how beloved you are by your fans." He seemed truly touched by that.
We even brought up the word EMMY. After our contention that he deserves it more than anyone, he laughed again, and shrugging his shoulders, acted as if he were going to say that it didn't mean anything...but he stopped himself. The look on his face, the little smile, you could tell...it would mean something to him. Again, he appeared to be touched by our words.
Finally, as we approached the executive suites that he and his troupe call home, I confided that I'd left a package for him at the desk, referring to it as "my small token to you for all that you've given your fans." He first sounded concerned and said, "Well, I didn't get it."
I explained quickly that I'd only left it prior to coming to the theater. He brightened and said, "Well then, I will get it. Thank you!" And there we were...at the sidewalk branching off to Sam's living quarters. Starting up the walk, he turned to us and said, "You three ladies are sweet."
I held up my camera and asked, "One for the road?"
Gracious to the last, he turned to me, held up his hand and smiled as I took one last shot.
That picture is posted next to me as I write this account. It is a picture I will treasure, along with the memory of this trip, as long as I have breath in me. Against a background of black, Sam Waterston stands clutching his script and his reading glasses in his left hand, his right hand raised, index finger in the air. His salt and pepper hair is swept back from his forehead, still in the style of James Tyrone, those large, dark eyebrows framing his smiling eyes and that closed mouthed grin that we have all become accustomed to when Jack McCoy is satisfied at a verdict or something else that has gone his way. You bet, Sam. You're number one in my book and always will be. And this long day's journey was well worth every step.