And Do They Know, It’s Like I’m Losing My Mind

THEATER REVIEW: Long Day’s Journey into Night
American Airlines Theatre, New York, May 14, 2016

I’m writing about Long Day’s Journey into Night four weeks later. As my first time experiencing this Eugene O’Neill drama, it crept up on me gradually in the theater. When you know a play will last four hours, your body relaxes more at first, eases into the experience. O’Neill’s play picks up energy as the day wears on for the Tyrone family and the crisp morning glow becomes harsher sunlight, darker evening, the pitch-black of midnight. One wonders if every day goes like this for the family: resolving to chart a new course each morning, falling back to old familiar habits by dinner.

The play covers one day in the Tyrone family’s Connecticut summer home, the year 1912. The Tyrones worry about the doctor’s diagnosis for their youngest son, Edmund, who is eventually revealed to have consumption. His father, James Tyrone, once a legendary actor, struggles with the cost of Edmund’s treatment, his other son James’s loafing around, and his wife Mary’s addiction to morphine. The focal point of the play could fall on any of the actors. This Roundabout revival, directed by Jonathan Kent, is built around the aura of Jessica Lange’s Mary.

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In the final act (the most energized one here), O’Neill and this production build tension with Mary’s absence. We know she is upstairs, with no one watching over her. The dread of what’s happened to Mary and when Jamie will come home keeps us on edge, while James and Edmund work through their fractured relationship. John Gallagher, Jr. (playing Edmund) comes into his own here opposite Gabriel Byrne’s James. Edmund’s monologue (“I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm”)underscored with the crash of the waves and rolling fogfeels magical, an expansive moment to breathe that breaks away from the play’s claustrophobia. Byrne is a softer, but attentive presence as the family patriarch, appropriate for an actor past his prime. In his lovely Irish lilt, Byrne makes clear his character’s inner pain, how the family’s self-destruction has worn him down.

When Michael Shannon (as James Jr.) drunkenly re-enters in act four, he overpowers Gallagher as a scene partner. Shannon is brilliant to watch on stage. He carries the snide, nasal drawl of a disillusioned former actor, disgusted by his family’s hardship. Shannon is hilarious as a drunkard, and Gallagher as his brother can’t really match him. His love for his brother is clear in Shannon’s performance, but he’s always taunting, always looking for an out so that he won’t have to emotionally commit.

Then, finally, Mary comes downstairs. Lange’s Mary is a haunted woman facing her own sunset. Earlier in the play, she’s restless, clasping her hands theatrically, always turning away from the others as if she can’t bear to look straight at them. (Too often, she’s turned away from some of the audience, too. From house right, we saw more of Lange’s back than we did her face.) Her change in countenance is immediate once she’s dipped into a new dose of morphine: her face lights up more blankly, her voice lighter and higher. When she’s asked to confront the reality of her addiction, her voice descends to a familiar guttural bellow.

But in this final scene, Lange’s Mary is young again. She looks directly out to the audience for the first time, and delivers O’Neill’s beautiful writing: “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” Lange is still at the end, and lets the language do its work. We understand the joy that Mary Tyrone once felt, her hopes for her marriage and her live that faded over the years. It’s a moving performance and a beautiful memory.

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