David Suchet is the greatest actor I have ever seen.
Last night I saw him play the father in the tragic A Long Days Journey Into Night. His leading lady was indisposed and her understudy inadequate, but he elevated her, nursed her along, and frequently made us forget her mediocrity. He did not do this by dominating scenes by hamming, but by delivering the play.
He became subtle, large, and brilliant, but in service to the show. He made it possible to not watch David Suchet by buttressing lesser actors in every movement. At the curtain call as they walked back stage I saw him congratulate his lesser actors.
But because of his awesome skills an old, and even dated play, taught as only theater can. The story is of a theatrical father, stingy as Scrooge from an impoverished childhood but given to spasms of grand generosity. He is married to a wife addicted to pain killers (a “dope fiend”) with two shiftless sons. The play brilliantly unfolds their guilt and innocence and how each loves, helps, and harms the others.
It is a bleak play with no happy ending in sight, in fact no real ending. Like the Iliad, the story starts with war and ends in war without any glorious conclusion. Of course, for most of us things are not so unrelievedly bleak, but like Ecclesiastes in the Bible not every story has to tell every truth. This play tells some hard truths.
Family is good, but any family also causes pain. Love, any love, is so powerful that is impossible not to do so in a broken world like our own. I come from a happy family, far removed from that of the play, but I must admit to having received hurts and caused them.
Sometimes we do this because we hate those we love while loving them. Worst of all, we hurt while meaning to love. Our knowledge is so limited. As a parent, I am reminded first to do no harm, because even my best intentions can go poorly. No deed is so good it will not cause pain.
The church sometimes forgets in exalting the family that the better a thing is the more harm it can do. Few families have no love, even very distorted ones, and none have no hurt and sin. Sometimes we pretend to familial paradise when it is, at best, a purgatory with glimpses of heaven and for a wretchedly large number a real hell.
To know everything is to forgive, almost, everything, but forgiveness does not a,ways make life bearable. The family in the play come to know all and so gains a tolerance for the vices of each member, but tolerance is not enough. Drug abuse still hurts the family, even if there is nobody really at fault. The father might be better than his stinginess, even lovable at times, but he has warped his children. The sons may have reacted in understandable ways to their parents, but they are still losers and cads.
To forgive is not enough without change, repentance, and though everyone in the play is sorry, nobody changes.
The last line of the play was, “We were happy once…” but that is a lie. Happiness slips away from the man who knows what is right, is sorry he does wrong, and then continues in his old ways. The father is loud in commending Irish Catholicism, but chary about practicing it. Still the set contained a crucified cross in continual solidarity with the family. Sadly, nobody much looked His way or understood His backstory and His pain.
Or at least that was what I thought David Suchet was teaching me last night.