By Karen Isaacs
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night” is a classic of American theater. O’Neill is considered America’s first great playwright – and even today may be our greatest. It also offers spectacular roles for actors, including a role that older actresses view as the Mt. Everest of roles.
Given the many challenges it presents, it is a wonder that the play is revived as often as it is. But the chance to portray Mary Tyrone keeps the play returning.
This revival at the Roundabout Theater’s American Airlines Theater features a stellar cast that scale the mountains the play presents. The play also presents challenges for the audience; it runs almost four hours with just one intermission and it is an emotional roller-coaster. Of course, given Broadway prices, it is also a bargain; the cost per minute is the lowest on Broadway.
Jessica Lange is the box office name probably driving this production, but she is joined by Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr. as members of the dysfunctional Tyrone family.
Long Day’s Journey has an interesting history. It is viewed as an autobiographical play and was completed in the mid-‘40s. O’Neill, however, sealed it and signed an agreement with his publisher that it would not be published until 25 years after his death. His third wife allowed the play to be published in 1956, three years following his death and productions soon followed. He was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.
The play is set during one day at the Tyrone’s Monte Christo Cottage (the name for the O’Neill family cottage which still exists in New London). It is summer 1912. James Tyrone is the patriarch of the family, who emigrated from Ireland. He is an actor who found the role that he could tour with forever and make money, but he resists spending it, always looking for the ”bargain” which often turns out to be no bargain. Also at the house is his wife, Mary who has battled morphine addiction for years but has been apparently “clean” since her last stay at a sanatorium. The older son, James, is in his thirties, and like Biff Loman in Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman is still “finding” himself. He acts but prefers bars and whorehouses. Edmund is the younger son; a reporter and promising writer who is ill with consumption.
From morning until almost midnight, the old arguments, regrets, recriminations, slights and hatreds are brought to the surface. You can easily see how this work must have influenced Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
We learn so much about the events of the past that have led this family to this point, the dynamics of the family, and the tragedies that have befallen each of them.
It’s easy to see Edmund’s tragedy – during that day, the diagnosis of consumption is confirmed and given the realities of the time, the audience knows it is probably a death sentence.
James’ tragedy is his lack of direction and underlying dislike of himself. He has become an actor at his father’s urging; he knows he will never be as good as his father was, he doesn’t know what else he can do, and it is all too easy to drown his disgust with booze and women.
But it is the older Tyrones who rivet our attention. James is filled with regret though he masks most of it with an exaggerated sense of self. He still wants to be the star and center of attention. The dream part that made the easy money also stunted his growth and reputation as an actor. The one night stands across the country for years has taken its toll, the uncertainties of acting profession has reinforced his frugality to the point that he always takes the cheapest option even when it comes to the health of his wife and children. Even with the seriousness of Edmund’s diagnosis, James is not willing to send him to a private, top rated sanatorium but instead is choosing the free state-run facility.
But it is Mary, around whom all three men revolve. Mary Tyrone has battled addiction for many years – since a hotel doctor gave her the medication following the birth of Edmund. Now, she has apparently been “clean” for months, but there are disturbing signs that she has relapsed. The three men tip-toe around the issue. They observe her constantly for signs of backsliding which makes her nervous and defensive. She too has her backstory.
Overall this is an excellent production, directed by Jonathan Kent. The set design by Tom Pye captures the waterfront cottage and he is added by the lighting by Natasha Katz and the sound design by Clive Goodwin. Jane Greenwood’s costumes reflect the formality of the period. Men wore shirts and dress pants even while cutting the hedges.
So that leads us to the outstanding acting. From Colby Minifie who plays the maid and has a substantial scene with Mary late in the play to the four principals, all are excellent.
John Gallagher, Jr. plays the consumptive Edmund. I found him riveting both in his long scenes with his brother and later his father or when he stands still in the corner observing the others. It is likely that he will be another victim of his father’s frugality.
Michael Shannon, who many know from HBO’s Boardwalk, is the older, dissolute James, Jr. He projects a man who is dead behind the eyes, though he is still breathing. His anger at his father is deep seated. He develops his role slowly, and it not until later in the play that he shows you the explosive anger, so like his father’s.
What can we say about Gabriel Byrne? This fine actor gives us James Tyrone in all his dimensions – bully, miser, loving husband, and uncertain actor. Like the others he is full of regrets and anger at both himself and at others. He can’t quite “own” his choices, so must blame others. Byrne shows us James that at times we want to hug and at other time shake.
Mary Tyrone is a challenge for any actress, but Jessica Lange just about masters it. At times her Mary has a tinge of Amanda Winfield, but you can see her slowly descend into her morphine. The costumes by Jane Greenwood give her a ghostly presence; even when she is in the room, it sometimes seems she isn’t really there. You are fascinated in how she rounds out the performance with gestures that absolutely capture the nervousness of the addict.
Overall, while this production may not be the definitive production of this play, it is a very, very good production. Director Jonathan Kent and his production team create the right atmosphere: the seaside, the barrenness, the anger and the sadness. To handle the multiple issues of this play, requires a director of great insight and sensitivity; Kent possesses this.
At the end, you are left reflecting on these lines from Mary: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”
A Long Day’s Journey into Night is a Roundabout Theater production at the American Airlines Theatre, 227W. 42nd St. through June 26. For tickets visit roundabouttheatre.org.