Is any play more accurately summarized by its title than Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night? It begins with breakfast and ends after midnight, when the four members of the Tyrone family — parents James and Mary, adult sons Jamie and Edmund — would be better off asleep. The printed script is 170 pages; in performance at the Roundabout, with one intermission, it runs three hours and forty-five minutes. Metaphorically, the title is even truer – no work of literature I know captures more harrowingly the inexorable progression from sunny optimism into darkness.
Throughout that long day, there’s very little in the way of conventional action. The two most significant “events” — both of which lead to accusations and family reckoning — occur off-stage… and both, oddly, are health-related.
One involves a diagnosis — at a doctor’s appointment in town, Edmund (the younger son, and a doppelganger for O’Neill) is told that his “summer cold” is, in fact, tuberculosis. The play’s chronology tells us this takes place between Acts II and III; the audience learns about it through subsequent conversations, though it was foreshadowed early on.
The more significant event — Mary’s relapse into morphine use, after a period of recovery — happens earlier, though it’s not clear exactly when. Likely, the first time she leaves the stage (around ten pages into the first act) it is to inject herself with a dose, though her relapse might have started even before play begins. What is clear is that from here on, she uses the drug more and more frequently. By the end, she’s in another world.
Mary’s addiction is, to my mind the critical precipitating factor in Long Day’s Journey. The bitterness and recriminations that blow through the house like shrapnel are deep and long-standing — but Mary opens the door.
Yet in Jonathan Kent’s often-excellent production, currently on Broadway at the Roundabout/American Airlines Theatre, the arc of Mary’s dependency and her growing alienation register less than I could have imagined. Jessica Lange gives a riveting, emotionally complex, tour de force performance — but, though there are many nuances, she is much the same Mary from the beginning to the moment she speaks the play’s famous last words (“I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.”)
Or perhaps what I’m seeing here is Kent and Lange’s quite different take on the effects of her morphine use— rather than calming Mary into a state of distanced observation, it seems to sharpen her anger?
I’m no expert on addiction, but the effect on O’Neill’s play is disorienting. I’m used to thinking of Long Day’s Journey as having a kind of double-trajectory: James, Jamie and Edmund start with at least a false-front of hopefulness, which crumbles steadily as the play goes on; while Mary, distracted and uncomfortable at the beginning, gets more relaxed as, literally, she cares less and less.
Here, the trajectory is more consistent among all four — and, from the start, more fraught. You might say that night starts to creep in almost before the breakfast dishes are cleared.
I’m not disputing the validity of Kent’s production, which may indeed depict morphine addiction — and how the real O’Neills, on whom the Tyrone family is modeled, interacted — more accurately than I’ve seen before.
But I missed a key undercurrent in O’Neill’s language, where cruel comments are cloaked in civility — for example, this line of Mary’s, to her husband:
“You always drink to much when you go to the Club, don’t you? Particularly when you meet McGuire. He sees to that. Don’t think I’m finding fault, dear. You must do as you please. I don’t mind.”
In past productions, I’ve heard this line (and lots of Mary’s others) delivered almost airily, in a kind of “it’s the drugs talking” state, though of course, there’s a sharp edge behind it. Here, it comes across purposeful, pointed recrimination. Audiences can judge for themselves which is more valid — for me, there’s a relentlessness here that paradoxically diminishes the impact.
This is, of course, not the only thing to say about Kent’s production — nor the only unexpected element. The work of his I’ve seen before (Lulu at the Almeida, Man of La Mancha on Broadway), has involved considerable reimagining; here, his direction feels almost reverential. Aside from a diaphanous white curtain that blows across the stage between scenes, nicely reinforcing O’Neill’s memorable fog imagery, this is a quite literal and period-specific Long Day’s Journey, with subtle but telling design work (scenery by Tom Pye, costumes by Jane Greenwood, lighting by Natasha Katz).
Gabriel Byrne is, at least initially, a more understated, less overtly theatrical James Tyrone than several others I’ve seen, but he grows in stature in the great speeches in Act IV. Byrne also captures better than many the dark humor in Long Day’s Journey, and his Irish-ness is a major asset — the real James O’Neill was born in Ireland, though the family emigrated to the U. S. when he was a child; till I saw Byrne, it hadn’t dawned on me how much the cadences mark his dialogue.
Byrne and Lange certainly make a handsome couple — they are also stylistically well paired. Michael Shannon, who plays Jamie, seems from a different world entirely — more casual in speech and manner, linked to more contemporary theatrical style (particularly when Shannon was on stage, I saw parallels between Long Day’s Journey and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Taken on its own, Shannon’s performance is quite wonderful, building to a danger and grandeur I’ve not seen before in the role — but it doesn’t feel of a piece with the others.
A lack of cohesive sense of family has marked most of the Long Day’s Journey productions I’ve seen, and it matters a lot, because so much of the narrative is, as it were, embedded in the DNA. Another factor that also makes a difference — Byrne, who is 65, is precisely the age specified for James Tyrone — but the other actors are all considerably older than their characters.
The youngest Tyrone, Edmund, here is the most problematic. John Gallagher, Jr. is a likeable actor, but lacking the necessary scale and poetic soul; it’s impossible to imagine that this young man will, within a few years, grow up to become Eugene O’Neill. (That’s been a problem with every Edmund I’ve seen.) Colby Minifie, playing Cathleen the maid, is too broad: Cathleen is meant to be gauche, but she shouldn’t be comic relief.
If this all this sounds very hit-and-miss, I should also say that it’s an overwhelmingly powerful day in the theater. Whatever my reservations, all four actors give unstintingly of themselves. The generosity of Lange’s performance — fully invested all the time, with no hint of vanity — was all the more striking because I saw a matinee; that she would do it all over again in a few hours was mind-blowing.
It is, indeed, Lange who registers most here. Playing Mary is clearly a labor of love. In fact, in it’s her second take on the role — in 2000, she appeared in a London production with a different director.
I didn’t see that version, but I have seen all three of Lange’s Broadway roles. They are quite the triumvirate: Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, and now Mary Tyrone, over a period of nearly 25 years. I thought Lange’s Blanche very intelligently done, but small-scale. I was much more taken with her as Amanda Wingfield — an unconventional reading that failed to win over many critics, but for me was a revelation.
With Mary Tyrone, Lange achieves an even stronger sense of mastering theatrical space. While I don’t agree with all the choices, the amplitude of her work makes it clear — she is one of our great stage actresses. The last moments of Long Day’s Journey belong fully to her, as they should.
Perhaps we can take comfort that — in this limited sense, at least — there’s a happy ending.
Long Day’s Journey into Night runs through June 26, 2016. For more information see the Roundabout Theatre Company website.