LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
Theatre has been a major part of my life since I was old enough to stay still in a darkened auditorium and willing to stand sturdily on a stage bleating loudly about carrots and pertaters where the wind comes sweepin' down the plain. In these past 348 years succumbing to this theatrical addiction of mine, I have attended my share of fine and not-so fine productions of the enduring American classic Long Day's Journey Into Night, for which Eugene O'Neill was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1957.
Although written in 1941 to exorcise some of the lingering personal demons that haunted O'Neill's life because of his majorly fucked-up Irish-American family, he did not want it published or performed for 25 years after he’d shuffled off his mortal coil. His widow Carlotta, however, believed it needed to be shared with the world earlier than that and so, despite his wishes and the disapproval of his representatives, Long Day’s Journey... was published by Yale Press in 1956.
I saw the original New York production starring Fredric March and Florence Eldridge when I was 10 or 11 and, although it took Uta Hagen in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a couple of years later to make my world explode as I began to realize I wanted to be a real actor, not just a cute and excessively prococious kid who earned good money belting out showtunes, I do remember the experience vividly. I have a crystalline memory of production, especially the work of a young unknown named Jason Robards Jr., making his Broadway debut as the Tyrones’ elder son Jamie after gaining attention earlier the same year off-Broadway in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, both productions directed by none other than Jose Quintero.
Through the years, I have seen many James Tyrones whine and rant and compulsively demand everyone turn out the lights in his cramped New London, Connecticut cottage, including the venerable Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as both Stacy Keach and the glorious Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Jamie. Still, it is the transcendent performances of the many world-class celebrities eager to take on the role of James’ drug-addled wife Mary who have lodged themselves firmly in my overcrowded memory-banks forever.
It would be impossible to forget Katherine Hepburn appearing opposite Ralph Richardson in the 1962 film version or the credible but too-classy Deborah Kerr drowning in an interminably flat mounting here at the Ahmanson in 1977 opposite Charlton Heston in a line-challenged performance so wooden one could have knocked on him for good luck. Other heralded Marys past, four of whom I have been fortunate enough to have seen personally, include Zoe Caldwell and Colleen Dewhurst (both opposite Robards in his later years as the senior Tyrone), Geraldine Fitzgerald, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Lange, and my beloved paladin Ruby Dee in the 1982 all-African American TV-movie adaptation.
My favorite Mary of all for many years, however, was a luminous turn by the late Sylvia Sidney passing through Chicago with a repertory company—that is until now. As the American theatre’s most challenging 20th-century anti-heroine, that distinction is now afforded to Lesley Manville, currently gracing the Wallis in a truly stellar transplanted Bristol Old Vic production under the inspired direction of Richard Eyre and featuring her adroitly bouncing off the towering Jeremy Irons as James.
Manville gives the performance of the year—if not the decade—as Mary, mesmerizing her audience with every entrance and making the complex character’s verbose morphine-induced ramblings credible without resorting to most actors’ usual tricks aimed at conveying the outward signs of addiction. Manville turns on a dime depending on Mary’s state of euphoria, morphing from delicate 1912 hothouse flower to Mother Machree to Amanda Winfield to that other infamous New England housewife, Albee’s sad, sad, sad Martha, never for a moment falling into the traps inherent in O’Neill’s tormented memories of the mother he both adored and loathed.
Aside from acing American accents and gracefully gliding over the play’s clunky first act exposition, there is a palpable, jaw-dropping chemistry between Manville and Irons, who also gives a masterful performance as her long-suffering husband. Irons never allows himself to get swallowed up in the character’s bluster but finds a unique, previously hidden heart and an almost sweet tenderness no actor before him has attained. And when James gets nostalgic about his earlier years as a promising young actor before success reduced him into what he fears is something of a joke, the 69-year-old Irons suddenly become a passionate, hopeful 20-year-old right before our very eyes. He exudes a wonderful childlike quality in James’ most sincere and evocative monologue, only deflating back to approaching 70 as he concludes with the realization that “only the past, when you were happy, is real.”
Rory Keenan has moments as their drunken and desperately unhappy son Jamie, but he is overshadowed by the work of Manville, Irons, and Matthew Beard as the Tyrone’s consumptive younger son Edmund, the autobiographical role into which the playwright poured his heart yet left his “observer” clearly underwritten. This is the play’s toughest character to assay but Beard gamely holds his own against his world-class costars. I can truly say, however, although I have been impressed with many Jamies through the years, no one ever came close to the memory of Bradford Dillman in the play’s Broadway debut some 60-plus years ago—I only wish I had seen Alan Bates make his mark as Edmund in the original West End production in 1958.
Of course, when O’Neill’s suppressed masterpiece surfaced 72 years ago, Long Day’s Journey… was a perfect candidate for the Pulitzer, which honors distinctive American art and journalism as it reflects our culture and chronicles the social conditions in which we live. Running almost three-and-a-half hours as the Tyrones explain their heartsicknesses, confess their sins, and continuously attack one another, sometimes with some modicum of love, sometimes not, from the beginning one gets the sense that no matter how this family tries to understand and lift one another up, in O’Neill’s world it was never going to happen.
While Mary Tyrone mourns never having a “real home” and living her life spent alone in second-rate hotel rooms as her frugal husband travels in his own theatre company, the progressively-more alienated character of Edmund begins his own personal journey into lifelong depression and addiction. The spectre of the playwright himself, who died of complications of alcoholism and Parkinson’s disease in a Boston hotel in 1953, looms large in his most autobiographical work, reminding me of the pessimism that haunted the great writer’s life and ended it with his last dying grumble: “I knew it… I knew it… Born in a hotel room and died in a hotel room.”
It’s a bleak and haunted world O’Neill recalls here and, something akin to our current national dilemma, there doesn’t seem to be a glimmer of hope to glean from the story of the desperate Tyrones, not a spark of resolution nor a hint of a happy ending even for the most ardent pollyanna. It’s not difficult to find oneself getting pulled into the vortex of the family’s despair, especially since the play’s exhaustive running time makes it quite a task for any director and cast to keep the material from getting stagnant and, often, well…boring—especially when as actor as dreary as Moses the Stoneface is miscast in the role of James Tyrone.
Luckily, this revival not only has Irons and Manville, it has Eyre in charge, who has done a remarkable job choreographing the movements of the Tyrones on a playing space as deep and wide as the Wallis mainstage. Never are the far sides of the stage or the far upstage entrance ignored, yet the modest summer home feels as cramped and intimate as the O’Neill’s real-life Monte Cristo Cottage in New London. And never does Eyre’s subtle and crafty staging seem contrived, something complimented by Rob Howell’s amazing set, which evokes an omnipresent, lavender-scented old-timeliness and sleek industrial modernity at the same time.
Add in Peter Mumford’s moody lighting, a redolent sound plot by John Leonard featuring plaintive foghorns and the diminishing cawing of seagulls flying away when the family’s maid Cathleen shouts out the cottage door (a charming cameo by Jessica Regan proving that old agade about “no small parts”), and ultimately it would be hard to feel your relatively short stay as a fly on the wall of the Tyrone’s unsettled home had been too long. One might only wish someone would have been around to help the cast adjust to the accoustics in the Wallis’ 500-seat Goldsmith Theatre, which was designed in 2013 to make it so that actors did not have to belt their lines as though they were trying to reach the back rows at Stratford.
As dismal and disheartening as Long Day’s Journey Into Night can often be, something overshadowed by the sheer power of this production and performances, there is still much to reap from the genius of O’Neill’s tormented family life so bravely conjured here. “The past is not just the past,” James tells his troubled son. “It is also the present. And the future. And we can’t lie ourselves out of that.” Would that the voters of America might benefit from that lesson come November and in 2020 but I, like Eugene O’Neill, have purdy much given up on humanity.
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