photo by Tim Fuller
Mary Tyrone (Theresa McElwee) and James Tyrone (Joseph McGrath) struggle with reality in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

The dysfunctional family has long been a mainstay of American theater. For nearly three hours The Rogue Theatre kept a near-capacity audience stone cold quiet with its relentlessly intense presentation of Eugene O'Neill's dysfunctional family classic “Long Day's Journey Into Night.”

Led by special guest artist Theresa McElwee as morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone, the lost and long-suffering wife of perpetually touring actor James Tyrone (Joseph McGrath), this adamant cast takes the play in its teeth and never lets go.

Their story is set in 1912, well over a century ago. A time when a proper family's speech was more formal, even around the house. Maintaining a proper family in every respect was essential to the Tyrones' image of themselves and to their adult children Jamie (Ryan Parker Knox) and his younger sibling Edmund (Hunter Hnat).

McElwee brings a deep theater background to the Rogue stage. Her performance is a masterful range of subtle shifts as Mary's rootless personality tries clinging to this or that, always searching for something stable.

Raised in a Catholic convent and being from a fine family, Mary wasn't prepared for the itinerant life of a popular actor. But for her it was love at first sight. Still, in her heart, she blames James for her addiction to morphine.

McElwee is so thorough in her expressive voice and body language, it is uncanny. She seems to make everyone better. Cynthia Meier as director takes full advantage of the opportunities.

McGrath finds in his role a kind of pitiful sternness that does feel right for the times Manners and morals counted for everything in American society back then. It was the final year of the William Howard Taft administration.

James Tyrone was a celebrity for his day, he had appearances to maintain. But in those honest moments he realizes this approach to earning the respect and admiration of his family just wasn't working.

Jamie and Edmund, as young men just coming into their own, sadly reflect their father's influence on them, as well as his strong belief in every man's right to drink alcohol freely.

O'Neill intended “Long Day's Journey Into Night” to be an accurate depiction of the dynamic forces of love and hate that powered such a damaging undertow among his own parents, his older brother and himself.

But since the 1950s the America family structure of two parents who wed for life with a couple of kids to raise has completely crumbled as a building block of society. Now we watch and it can also seem perplexing why the Tyrones insisted on staying together when it was making everyone miserable.

All three men say they want to love and  understand Mary. But at the same time they can't help feeling she is a burden. Mary feels it too.

The closest she gets to companionship with another female is from the grumpy housemaid Cathleen (Holly Griffith), whose own cynicism feels like a reflection of the family she works for.

As a theatrical experience, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" becomes a Rogue Theatre milestone. One that will be remembered for seasons to come.

The show runs through Sept. 29, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays, in the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. in the Historic Y. Tickets are $42, with $15 student rush tickets 15 minutes before curtain when available. Valid student ID is required,

For details and reservations, 520-551-2055, or visit www.theroguetheatre,org

photo by Tim Fuller
Jay (Bechir Sylvain) listens to the wisdom of his sister Nina (Erica Chamblee).

"The Royale” opening Arizona Theater Company's season, is somewhat abstract and takes a little getting used to, although the message is clear – today's white people should feel ashamed of the way they have historically treated black people.

While the five performers are excellent and the acting is wonderful in this story set during 1908 about the first African American heavyweight boxing champion, metaphor becomes everything to the 90-minute production, performed without an intermission.

On a sparsely lit bare stage, scenic designer Misha Kachman centers the squared ring of boxing as a platform with a tall pole at each corner and no ropes.

On a bracket at the left of the ring is that familiar round gong of prize fights and on the right side a punching bag hangs waiting. As the story progresses, a round of ropes is added to the four poles.

But first, a little history. The story of Jay (Bechir Sylvain) is based on the true story from more than 100 years ago of the magnificently talented African American boxer Jack Johnson. He was so fearsome that the white Heavyweight Champion of the World, James J. Jeffries, retired rather than face Johnson in the ring.

In 1908, Jeffries finally came out of retirement to fight Johnson...and lost what was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” According to Wikipedia, Johnson's victory was immediately followed by race riots breaking out all across the U.S.

This reality is the fear that drives “The Royale.” We feel in Sylvain's performance the burden Jay the boxer carries as the most prominent and powerful member of his race forced to face a fight others have set up for him.

Jay didn't want to change the world with his fists. He only wanted to be respected as the true world champion. Here he was, given such supreme gifts. Yet because of the nation's strong white hatred he wasn't able to use his world-class skills.

And in a smaller but pivotal performance, his sister Nina (Erica Chamblee) keeps reminding Jay that if he beats a white man in the ring, many black people will suffer through no fault of their own. There will be a new reason for white people to hate black people and it will be his fault. Jay's fault.

Did he want to bring that violence on all Negroes? But if he loses the fight, his people will also lose their own dignity.

Deep down inside himself, with the heart of a true champion, Jay knows he can win. But what counts for more, his own ego or his own people?

In “The Royale,” three additional cast members help to create the pain of this dilemma that falls on the muscular shoulders of a pioneering champion. Joining Sylvain and Chamblee are Fish (Roberto Antonio Martin), who is Jay's sparring partner, Wynton (Edwin Lee Gibson), who is Jay's trainer and Max (Peter Howard), the fight promoter and ring announcer.

There is no staged fighting. In those scenes, the fighters stand several feet apart to describe their internal feelings in the ebb and flow of the ring action. We can believe this battle of blows easily enough, but even stronger is Jay's struggle to become the world's champion.

“The Royale” continues through Sept 28 with performances at various times Tuesdays through Sundays in the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets are $40-$70. For details and reservations, 622-2823 or visit arizonatheatre.org