Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 27, 2016
Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill. Directed by Jonathan Kent. Set design by Tom Pye. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Clive Goodwin. Hair and wig design by Tom Watson. Dialect Coach Stephen Gabis. Fight Director J. David Brimmer. Cast: Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon, John Gallagher, Jr., with Colby Minifie.
That's true literally and figuratively speaking, by the way. As its title implies, the play tracks one day at the summer home of the Tyrone family, from early in the morning until just after midnight, during which the fragile bonds that have long held them together both internally and externally fray and sever. The collapse starts slowly and builds over nearly the nearly four-hour running time (with only one intermission here) so that, by the end, not even hope remains within James Tyrone, Sr. (Gabriel Byrne), his wife Mary (Jessica Lange), and their sons James Jr., aka Jamie (Michael Shannon), and Edmund (John Gallagher, Jr.). They've been withered by the light and are to be buried by the dark, with redemptionto say nothing of exaltationan unimaginable possibility at best.
One thing that marvels with each new production of this largely autobiographical masterwork (which was finished in 1942 but not performedexpressly against his wishesuntil after the playwright's death in 1956) is not that O'Neill accomplished it at all, but that he built it from such simple pieces. The essential conflicts are basic: James Sr., an esteemed actor, is money-grubbing and oblivious to the agony he inflicts on those around him; Mary is addicted to the morphine she was given by a hack doctor while birthing Edmund; Jamie is a worthless, human-shaped slug with a penchant for fast alcohol and faster women; and Edmund (O'Neill's personal avatar) is a high dreamer who's suffering from formal consumption inside his body and the erosion of his family life outside it.
Yet in weaving together these elements, O'Neill paints not only an absorbing portrait of the Tyrones in super-speed crumble but also of an America at the threshold of an era that's poised to destroy everything James once lived and embodied. We can all but see the past melt away as each character, to one degree or another, gives in to their delusions and realizes the necessity of facing the existence that is, and not merely the one we desire. The evolution is, perhaps, most evident with Mary, who begins as a strong and capable woman and is reduced through her drugs and the corrosive influence of her family into a ghost of a girl who's all but unrecognizable as the same person. But if that development is the most extreme, it's far from the only one: The men are eaten away by their grief no less completely, though it manifests itself in more testosterone-driven ways (rampant drinking and punching foremost among them).
The opposing track down which Kent takes his version, however, is not inherently less compelling. By emphasizing the average, everyday qualities of the Tyrones, he shrinks much of the distance between the play's setting (1912) and today and reveals these people to be a lot more like us than we're likely to be comfortable with. James Sr. becomes more a victim of circumstance than a tragic hero. An extra layer of complexity is added with Mary, who's driven to madness in no small part by the ordinary life she can't stop complaining about not complaining about. And Jamie is even more a fop flop, not so much driven downward to mediocrity as never allowed to rise above it in the first place.
The writing is so good that it can not only survive in this interpretation but thrive, and Ken has wisely not dialed back the intensity despite lowering the volume. (Even Tom Pye's ramshackle half-imagination set, Jane Greenwood's costumes, Clive Goodwin's sound, andexcept for one overly pushy moment during Edmund's meditation in Act IVNatasha Katz's lights are low-key.) Admittedly, this means you're catapulted on less of a roller-coaster ride of feeling than is sometimes the case, and because that can be a major source of exhilaration, the final product may not satisfy everyone. But everything is here and, within these strictures, just about everything works.
This is especially true of Lange, who's superb as Mary. She begins showing us a hardy, steadfast, supplicant of a wife whose optimistic outlook is infectious, but gradually whittles her away into nothingness as she must witness, and eventually submit to, the encroaching desolation around her. But Lange maintains absolute control throughout, adapting Mary's personality ever so minutely to each new change, and letting us see her struggle to hang on to sanity as she drifts further and further away from it. Perhaps the scariest part of Lange's performance is that Mary always remains identifiable within her increasingly hollow shell; there's never any question of what's being lost.
Byrne pulls off a similar magic act with James Sr., maintaining the man's aching lucidity while he slips behind deeper and deeper torrents of drink. What he reveals along the way is that James is already brokennot in the process of breakingwhich gives his late-night admissions and turnarounds a more unsettling timbre than is often the case: the sense that his actions are far from as accidental and as clueless, as they seem, and that his most debilitating issues lie elsewhere, so remote that he is unable to unleash them. And because Byrne tempers James's attitude to match his own relatively slight frame, there's no mistaking just how life-or-death his stakes are.
The other actors are less sure. Shannon, who in his physicality and voice seems to be channeling Jamie's originator, Jason Robards, falls just shy of connecting with all of the character's demons, which leaves him resonating as too much of a mystery too himself. Colby Minifie is a shade too broad to totally convince as the Tyrone's maid, Cathleen. And Gallagher's spin on Edmund is so vacant and lightweight, almost parodic in the obliviousness it imparts him, that it's impossible to see the impact he needs to have on his family as the evening draws to a close. (The mustache he wears doesn't help; it was obviously intended to make him resemble O'Neill but instead makes him look like a 1970s-stereotype pedophile.)
It's a testament to both the play and Kent's treatment of it that these stumbles cannot stop this production from landing with full hurricane force. To see it is to be swept up in it and to experience, whether again or for the first time, just what a great play can do when it's handled well. But forget about escaping. Long after the Tyrones' travails are over, they'll rage on in your memory and heart, an ongoing reminder that the theatre's most devastating storms are those it kindles within usand this Long Day's Journey Into Night delivers more than its fair share.