Theater exits COVID pause with ‘Journey’

Bridge Street Theatre co-founders John Sowle and Steven Patterson on the set of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

CATSKILL — As the Bridge Street Theatre in Catskill emerges out of the long shadow of the pandemic, the theater company is taking on one of its most daunting challenges ever: a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

The classic American drama marks the third production the theater has staged since it reopened in September with theater co-founder Steven Patterson performing in the one-person show “Miss Gulch Returns!”

The production will deploy a four-act structure as the classic play lasts approximately three hours.

“People are still very, very leery of being in an enclosed space,” Patterson said. “With this show, it’s over three hours long and there’s two intermissions. So it’s going to be a big commitment. As big a commitment as we made deciding to do it. It is indeed a ’Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ and the ‘long’ is fully capitalized. It’s a long show.”

The theater had to shut down its 2020 season when COVID-19 began wreaking havoc in the spring. During the lean times of the pandemic, the theater was thrown a lifeline when Catskill resident Duke Dang, who works for the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, connected the theater with dance troupes who were interested in renting the theater for rehearsals.

Eight troupes eventually performed private residencies at the Catskill theater.

“We were really sustained by these dance residencies that started in January and went into June,” Patterson said. “Small dance groups came in here and they could bubble. They could all get tested and then come up here and basically quarantine in our theater for two weeks while they worked on new stuff. That helped to sustain us and it gave them the opportunity to finally get on stage and do work again. It was a real win-win for all of us.”

A performance from the residency of the dance group -QueertheBallet was posted online by the theater and garnered the theater its highest-ever view total.

For all three shows the theater has presented since its reopening, including “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” all ticket holders are required to show proof of vaccination and must wear masks throughout the performance.

The theater contains 84 seats, but only 50 tickets will be sold for each performance to leave room for social distancing between each pod of ticket holders.

The company purchased a new HVAC system and air purifiers are situated on each side of the theater’s stage.

“That helps and we have social distancing in the audience, so people feel safe,” play director (and theater co-founder) John Sowle said.

The co-founders are excited to get the chance to present a work that is generally considered to be one of the all-time greatest American plays.

The extremely personal play by O’Neill tells the story of the dysfunctional Tyrone family, a bitter and tragic group of addicts who served as stand-ins for the playwright’s own family.

When the play was finished, O’Neill stipulated that it couldn’t be published until 25 years after his death. Ultimately, it ended up being produced on stage for the first time in Sweden in 1956, just three years after the playwright’s demise.

“After O’Neill had written all of these very theatrical plays that sort of touched on the same themes and finally at the end of his life he wrote a play that was the foundation of all his theatrical writing, really,” Sowle said. “It was so painful for him. He would write for four or five hours in the morning and he would come out in tears. He was laying down all of this agony that was the foundation of his creativity.”

This year marks the 65th anniversary of the play’s 1956 Broadway debut.

Patterson said the play’s story of a morphine-addicted mother and the alcoholic male family members who surround her, should resonate with local audiences.

“We’ve done several things in collaboration with Twin Counties Recovery Services,” he said. “With the opioid epidemic and the problems with drugs here in Greene County, this show is relevant. It’s really whacked out because the three men in this Tyrone family are absolutely appalled that the mother figure has relapsed into her morphine addiction and they can’t see at all that they’re all alcoholics.”

Patterson added that even if audience members don’t see themselves in the characters, they can at least feel superior to the fictional Tyrone clan.

“They can say ‘Wow, my Thanksgiving wasn’t nearly as bad,’” he joked.

The play will run for a limited eight performances from Nov. 11-21, with evening performances at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday for two consecutive weeks.

Due to the involved nature of the play, Sowle and the cast held three weeks of rehearsals for the show instead of the standard two.

Patterson will play the role of family patriarch James Tyrone in the production, co-starring with Roxanne Fay, Christopher Patrick Mullen, Christopher Joel Onken and Taylor Congdon.

Local sculptor Marc Swanson, who has an exhibition scheduled for MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts, next year, designed the sets for the production.

The producers also commissioned composer Justin Morell to produce an original score for the show.

After watching the actors on stage drinking bourbon (actually tea) for three hours, the producers have a novel idea to reward audience members who make it through the full show.

“We’re thinking about passing out stickers at the end of each show to everybody who stays until the end that say ‘I survived ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ at the Bridge Street Theatre,’” Sowle said. “Plus if we can find them we may hand out little airline bottles of bourbon, too, at the end.”

The theater started presenting shows in 2014, but the pandemic has brought on the biggest challenge yet for the group to overcome.

“We’re masked onstage and we have to test repeatedly just to make sure things are cool and we’re all still negative,” Patterson said. “We’d love it if audiences didn’t have to be masked at all, but that’s a union requirement. We have to make the environment as safe as we possibly can for people.”

The theater is hoping to present a full season of shows in 2022, but that depends on the pandemic.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Patterson said. “Things are still uncertain. We’ll see. That’s not up to us.”

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Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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