Eugene O’Neill’s masterwork shows up in London or on Broadway every other season or two, and with good cause. It remains a bravely probing look into a particular family, one which produced an American genius, son of a twisted and misguided father who spent his life regretting his own self-destruction.
This family (a mother, father, and two surviving sons) are all so interdependent that none can fully function without the support of the other three. And from this raw material, based closely on his own family experience, O’Neill took almost a lifetime to capture its players in a play he wrote in 1942, but kept locked in his publisher’s vault, with strict instructions that it not be published or produced until 25 years after his death. O’Neill died in 1953, but his widow Carlotta circumvented his instructions, and allowed the play to be done in 1956. In the decades since, it has attracted the most gifted actors of their time.
In this instance, Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne, along with Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. have chosen to follow the likes of Fredric March, Paul Scofield, Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards, David Suchet, Katherine Hepburn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Coleen Dewhurst, and Laurie Metcalf, among many others in inhabiting the tiny cottage in New London, Connecticut where, during one long night, “the past is the present,” and all the bitter truths which have been buried, are unearthed, and held to the light.
From 8:30 in the morning until midnight, on this particular August day in 1912, James and Mary Tyrone and their two sons Edmund and Jamie, will expose themselves to each other emotionally, and we will come to know, understand, and be moved by the ways in which their very genetic makeup will direct the life choices they’ve all made, which bring them to this day of reckoning. O’Neill writes painstakingly, and nothing is left unsaid. All the excuses, explanations, denials, admissions, regrets, and disappointments are ripped from them in the four acts of confrontation. His language is blunt; he often has his characters speak crudely, then immediately regret the pain they’ve caused. But moments later they may spew more venom, and hurt once again. The roles are juicy; each gets time center stage, and there are monologues painful to hear and even more painful for the characters to say.
Jessica Lange, who first played Mary Tyrone fifteen years ago, now has the maturity and experience and grace to make her a truly tragic figure of a woman who fell in love with the man who would offer her a life to which she truly was not suited. Circumstance not of her own making has turned her into a drug addict, and on this day, that sad fact is finally faced. Her husband, filled with his own self-destructive ways, faces the wrong trajectory of his own life, and can no longer do anything about changing its direction. His older son Jamie is aware that his need of alcohol has already sapped him of all ambition and direction, has turned him into a self-loathing mess of a man, who’d once been a charming and happy child.
Younger son Edmund, ill with tuberculosis, is the one who will survive, for he represents O’Neill himself. It’s a self portrait that is brutally honest, painted with all the influences that have formed him. If there is any light at the end of this long day’s journey, it is that we know that Edmund will use all that’s happened to him to write dozens of plays that will help all of us to better understand and appreciate our own lives.
Gabriel Byrne allows us to see, now and then, the charm and charisma that made the early life of James on stage as a young actor so promising. Once compared to a vital competitor to the great Edwin Booth, his early success in a popular melodrama lured him into a different kind of career, one that has brought him some financial security but no satisfaction. He is still clinging to the great love he once felt for his wife Mary, but he knows she is drifting away from him, and it practically kills him with regret.
Michael Shannon is a very moving Jamie; he’s looked in a mirror and not denied that he has become someone he doesn’t even like. His advice to his own brother, whom he loves, is to disavow him, to turn from him, for he knows his influence on his younger sibling is enormous.
John Gallagher Jr.’s Edmond, ten years younger than Jamie, is still forming his character, but one can feel his fear that he won’t be strong enough to escape from all the darkness that surrounds him.
Just under four hours long, I’ve always felt the play could use a little weight, but I don’t really question Mr. O’Neill’s decision to pound his points home, to repeat certain catch phrases again and again. I do know I was held spellbound throughout, and I don’t think the playwright himself could have wished for a finer ensemble than the one assembled here. And that includes Colby Minifie, who plays the “second maid”, a sprightly and outspoken Irish lass who is healthy and fun to have around. Prepare yourself for this experience; have a pre-theatre nap, don’t eat too heartily, be certain to arrive on time, disconnect all your electronic equipment, and give yourself over to a four hour visit with the Tyrone family.
This production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, under the very tight direction of Jonathan Kent, with an atmospheric set by Tom Pye that allows the New England fog to affect your mood, will send you out into the night after a nourishing and provocative theatrical experience.
Running Time: 3 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is playing at Roundabout Theatre Company’s The American Airlines Theatre – 227 West 42nd Street, in New York City. For tickets, call (212) 719-1300, or purchase them online.