Although this may not be the definitive production of this stark, wordy tragedy, it successfully offers a new interpretation on many levels. Written between 1941 – 42, before Parkinson’s made it impossible for him to write, Long Day’s Journey is so autobiographical of O’Neill’s home life with his parents and older brother James that he stipulated in his will that it should not be published until 25 years after his death. His widow, the actress Carlotta Monterey, arranged to have it published and performed three years after his death as none of the people in the play were still alive. The written description of the set is exactly the floor plan of the Monte Cristo Cottage, the summer home of the O’Neills in New London, Connecticut.
Set on one day in August 1912, the play follows retired matinee idol James Tyrone, his failed actor son Jamie, a confirmed alcoholic, and his younger son Edmund (based on the playwright himself) soon after mother Mary Tyrone has been discharged from a sanitarium for yet another cure for her addiction to morphine. But Mary has been nodding out lately and the men fear that she has gone back to her morphine originally given by a hotel doctor when she was pregnant and on tour with her husband. And today is the day that Doc Hardy, the elderly local medical man, is to tell college-age Edmund if he has tuberculosis and needs to go to a sanitarium.
However, life is even more difficult than this bald summary: Tyrone is so stingy that he does not allow the family to keep more than one bulb on at night. He keeps both sons, Jamie, a failed actor, and Edmund, just getting work on the local newspaper, on such a short leash they can hardly get into town without another handout. Jamie uses his extra cash to drink and to spend time with prostitutes, while Edmund’s chronic cough keeps him from having much energy. Jamie worries that if Edmund needs medical treatment, their father will pick the cheapest place imaginable. And hanging over all of this is their constant watching over Mary so that she has no time alone, a woman who still frets over the death of her youngest child Eugene and the concert career she gave up to live in lonely hotel rooms while her husband toured the country.
Unlike many of the recent New York stagings, Eyre’s production makes it clear that the thrust of this four act play is an attempt for the Tyrones to exorcise their demons in one alcohol infused night. Before it is over, each and every character will have bared his or her soul in one night of regret, guilt, despair and anger. So much gets revealed, there does not seem to be anything left unsaid by the final devastating curtain. He also has staged the first two acts (before the one intermission) with the characters talking so fast that it is as if they do not want to have to stop and notice what they are running away from. Although Rob Howell’s bright and airy set (at least until night falls and the darkness creeps in) seems huge, all of the characters seemed to be caged animals pacing back and forth in forced confinement.
While the play usually focuses on James Tyrone, this production centers around the magnificent performance of Lesley Manville who has not appeared on a New York stage since the 1982 London transfer of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls to the Public Theater. However, she should be familiar to Americans from her seven films with director Mike Leigh including Secrets and Lies, Another You, Mr. Turner and Vera Drake, and her 2018 Oscar nominated performance as Cyril, Daniel Day-Lewis’ sister in Phantom Thread.
Manville makes us feel that we have seen and heard Mary’s backstory: we understand completely what has made morphine so attractive. Continually working her hands in various ways, she makes us feel her ever-present pain. Once she decides that her hair is coming down, she is continually snatching moments to try to fix it. In the first half of the play she seems to never stop talking as if to keep her mind off her problems; in the second half she seems to have achieved a kind of peace that she can only find at the end of a syringe. By the final moments of the play, she has receded back in time to her convent days before she ever met handsome actor James Tyrone in his prime.
As retired matinee idol James Tyrone, Irons’ performance curiously takes a back seat to that of Manville’s Mary. Unlike the crude drunks of Jason Robards and Brian Dennehy in this role and the comic drunk of Jack Lemmon, Irons (who won a Tony Award for his performance in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing) is courtly and gentlemanly and a bit affected, as though still putting on the performance that Tyrone was famous for. It is not until late in the fourth act and in near darkness that Irons shows us the power that Tyrone must have had in his stage appearances. It is an unusually generous choice and it ultimately pays off.
Brothers Jamie and Edmund are described by O’Neill as physically very different from each other and many productions make them seem as though not related or have had different parents. However, this is incorrect as we must intuit that younger brother Edmund is on the road to becoming just like his dissolute older brother if something does not happen soon to remove him from this environment. Eyre’s production is very successful in making Rory Keenan’s man-about-town Jamie and Matthew Beard’s aspiring writer Edmund seem physically miles apart but emotionally tied to each other.
Looking unshaven and first seen in an undershirt with his suspenders around his thighs, Keenan signifies a man who has gone to seed from the moment we meet him. His muscular, compact stature suggests a man who lives for his senses, while the taller, wiry Beard appears to have the sunken chest of a man suffering from a lung disease. Although Beard gets more stage time, Keenan steals the thunder in his final scene when he tells Edmund to beware of the damage he is capable of doing to him in his envy of his talents. Beard has a tremendously emotional scene when late in the night he devastates his father by telling him what a tightwad he has always considered him to be. Jessica Regan as the maid Cathleen is amusing as the sort of young woman who will take no guff or nonsense from anyone.
As darkness falls on the New London coast and an offshore fog horn is heard, Long Day’s Journey into Night makes great demands on the production team. Most impressive is Peter Mumford’s lighting design which through the huge glass windows of Howell’s setting seems to be continually changing until, almost without warning, the night descends and blackness takes over the sky. John Leonard’s faint fog horn is heard during most of the play as a faraway sound that is ever-present and from which none of the character can escape – like their lives. Howell’s elegant Edwardian costumes in summer whites suggest a time when money was not such a problem for the Tyrones. Along with the huge windows and skylight, Howell’s set is remarkable for its towering book cases, making us wonder when these people have time to read with their overwhelming problems and obsessions.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, which has been called America’s greatest play, has had two other major New York productions since 2003, also with A-list film and stage stars. However, that the play reveals so many different facets in each version tells you how great a play it is. Jeremy Irons, Lesley Manville and company have a myriad of things to show us in this magnum opus of our greatest playwright. And in Manville’s performances, she reaches the heights of the dramatic art: you never feel that she is acting for one moment but has become Mary Tyrone.
Long Day’s Journey into Night (through May 27, 2018)
Bristol Old Vic
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-638-4100 or visit http://www.bam.org
Running time: three hours and 25 minutes with one intermission