By Lucy Komisar
From Jessica Lange‘s remarkable dissolution as the drug addicted Mary, reaching her nadir (and theatrical heights) in her mad scene, to Michael Shannon‘s stunning drunk, you are blown away by Jonathan Kent‘s staging of Eugene O‘Neill‘s “Long Day‘s Journey Into Night.”
An almost four-hour Roundabout Theatre production passes without a fidget in the rapt audience. O‘Neill‘s play was completed in 1941 and produced only in 1953, after his death three years earlier. It is autobiographical. His father was a famous dramatic actor and O‘Neill as a youth traveled with his parents. The younger son, Edmund, stands in for O‘Neill.
The set is the summer house they have rented for years. Not elegant, but not too shabby either, as such places go, with a rocker, round table, straw summer chair and bookcase. It‘s August of 1912. They are utterly consumed with their own life crises; nothing is said about world politics or what might be happening overseas.
Kent, with the help of the fine cast, assures that the production never veers into melodrama.
James Tyrone (Gabriel Byrne in a gruff Irish accent) is 65 and has been married to Mary for 35 years. He‘s a successful actor who has made a fortune producing on the road the play that made him famous. He made money, 35 to 40 thousand dollars a season, but it ruined his career. He was known for just one role and didn‘t develop his craft.
And for stinginess toward his family. He lodged them in second rate hotels when they accompanied him on tour. When Mary gave birth to Edmund, he hired a cheap hotel doctor, who gave her morphine as easy pain management. He got another cheap medic for Edmund who now is seriously suffering from TB.
Jamie accuses, “It might never have happened if you‘d sent him to a real doctor when he first got sick.” James keeps buying local, often worthless, land; so they are cash poor.
They do afford two maids who do the cooking and housekeeping. And James likes to hobnob with men in bar rooms, Mary reminds him.
But he gives little slack to his sons. James laces into Jamie (Shannon), who he calls a failure at 34. Jamie replies, “I never wanted to be an actor. You forced me on the stage.”
The younger Edmund is sick, coughing. He was thrown out of college and worked around the world as a sailor. Now he‘s writing poems and parodies for the local paper. He has to ask James for car fare to visit the doctor.
Now, the issue is whether James will pay for a good rehabilitation facility or the cheap public one. Mary is in denial about his illness, but they are all in denial about one thing or another.
Before midday lunch, while James is in the road chatting with one of the locals, the boys drink liquor, then water the bottle.
In the evening, James sits in darkness with only one bulb burning out of four in the chandelier and is annoyed when Edmund wants to leave the porch light on at night.
So we are not sympathetic to James. Then as we learn more, we shift in assigning guilt. It‘s economic suffering at the bottom of it all. His father returned to Ireland when he was ten. He and his mother were evicted from their shabby dwellings. Instead of going to school, he worked in a machine shop, always in fear of the poorhouse.
He rails against “our ruling plutocrats, especially the ones who inherited their boodle.” He enjoys the fact that the pigs of a local farmer had gotten through a hole in the fence to swim in that rich neighbor‘s ice pond. And that the farmer proclaimed that “he was no slave Standard Oil could trample on.”
Mary is like a wilting flower among the men. She is sweet as an ingénue in a blue dress and white upsweep. Her delicate voice is colorful, musical, floating, high and fluttery, then low. She shows robust emotion while never raising her voice.
But inside, she is dying. The others are afraid that after a spell in a sanatorium, she will find morphine again. She accuses them of being suspicious, spying on her. And then, in a reversal, of leaving her alone. “Your father goes out. He meets his friends in bar-rooms or at the Club. You and Jamie have the boys you know. You go out. But I am alone. I‘ve always been alone. “
She alters her voice from soft plaintiveness to pleading, accusing: “I‘m so sick and tired of pretending this is a home!”
The Tyrones hurt each other as resentments boil over. Edmund declares, “It may have been all his fault in the beginning, but you know that later on, even if he‘d wanted to, we couldn‘t have had people here.”
She turns on Jamie, furious at his criticizing his father.
But she understands that, “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.” It’s that past that provided the inspiration for O’Neill’s great play. And made us understand the economic basis for the family’s tragedy.
“Long Day‘s Journey Into Night.” Written by Eugene O‘Neill, directed by Jonathan Kent. Roundabout Theatre Company at American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street, New York City. 212-719-1300. Opened April 27, 2016, closes June 26, 2016. 6/21/16.