Long Day’s Journey Into Night, American Airlines Theatre, 3 h 40 m
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a tale of addiction and family dysfunction that transcends time. Even on paper the words and structure of this autobiographical work by Eugene O’Neill are powerful, sometimes brutal, sometimes lyrical. But when the acting is as excellent as it is in the current production, the effect is luminous.
Jessica Lange plays the haunted Mary Tyrone. Like the fog that ebbs and flows around the family’s seaside cottage, Mary drifts between a sharp lucidity and a fey dreaminess, driven by her morphine addiction.
The three men in her life orbit Mary’s extremes, fueled by their own alcoholism. The father, James Tyrone, played by Gabriel Byrne, is a matinee-idol of the stage. He is famous for a single role in a popular play that has made him wealthy and famous, but he regrets forsaking Shakespeare, who he still quotes and idealizes. Jamie (Michael Shannon), the oldest son, is a dissipated, failed actor. His younger brother, Edmund is a poet and wanderer. His diagnosis of consumption, what we now call tuberculosis, is confirmed during the course of the play.
At the start the men are cautiously hopeful that Mary, who has recently returned from a cure, is finally free of the drug. Jamie is the first to suspect otherwise, hearing Mary wandering the upstairs halls and spending the night in the spare bedroom, always a tell-tale sign that she has slipped.
As the men realize Mary is using again, the recriminations start. She realizes they are watching her, following her. She angrily lashes out at them, then retreats into a world of her own, musing incoherently. “I tried,” she confesses to James, but in the very next line she escapes back into denial. They all try to blame each other for her disease, but they never acknowledge the effects their drinking has had on the family, excusing it as reaction to their own circumstances and her drug use. The sons tell James that because of his stinginess he has never found her decent doctors and has forced her to live in cheap hotels and the dilapidated summer cottage she hates. The father tells both of them that they are bums that drink and whore and rely on him for money. Like the abrupt changes in Mary, the men hate and love each other from moment to moment.
Jessica Lange is a wonder as the addled Mary. She paces around the room like a trapped animal at the start of the play, attacking and then retreating. Lange subtly conveys Mary’s constantly shifting moods by the pitch of her voice, the fluttering of her hands, the vacancy of her look. She speaks in a deep, wounding growl when she berates the others, but in the grip of the drug her voice is high and unsteady.
Like the men in the play, we can’t take our eyes off her, never quite sure what she will say or do next. At one moment she is wistfully back in the convent of her youth, the next she calmly contemplates a welcome overdose. As good as the other actors are, it is Lange that shines brightest
She initially seemed to be drawing on Katherine Hepburn’s interpretation of Mary with a shaky voice and nervous gestures. But soon it is clear that Lange has much more depth, inhabiting Mary’s viciousness as thoroughly as she conveys the haze of the drug. At one point she is draped off of a chair, grasping the edge of a table, looking for a balance that she can never achieve. When she’s not on the stage, you want her back.
These are all complex characters, and nothing is easy about portraying any of them. Byrne is not the definitive James Tyrone, but he does capture James’s weariness and resignation. While not the dominating presence you expect, he incisively takes James on the wide arc from hope to disappointment to eventual drunken disgust. You are meant to both despise and pity James, and Byrne doesn’t quite get you to those extremes.
The lumbering Brennan is near perfect as Jamie. He is able to elicit just enough empathy for the cynical older brother to make him almost admirable, despite his failings. He smoothly brings out Jamie’s duality: a belligerent drunk and a solicitous older brother.
The one weak spot is John Gallagher, Jr. as the failing Edmund, probably the play’s most difficult role since it relies less on histrionics than the others. Gallagher plays him as quiet and self-pitying, but he isn't able to give Edmund the strength to credibly challenge the others. We only see him resigned to his sickness and the futility of his minor literary efforts. His long passage in the fourth act about his life at sea is monotonous and distracting.
More than half of Act Four is taken up with Edmund's musing and James telling family secrets and bemoaning the lost promise of his early career. You get impatient waiting to see what has happened to Jamie and Mary. He has been on a drunken binge in town; she has been hidden away upstairs, taking ever larger doses of morphine.
No question that at three hours and 40 minutes this is a long night at the theater. There have always been grumblings that O’Neill needed to edit more, particularly the dialogue between Edmund and James in Act Four. With that exception, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” moves briskly, as you are caught up in the dystopia of the Tyrone family. And Jessica Lange is not to be missed, maybe the best Mary ever.