When the house lights rose at the end of the latest Broadway revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I felt we needed a moment of silence before applauding this awe-inspiring production. Jessica Lange’s performance as Mary Tyrone alone deserved to be reverenced. I wanted time to come back to reality in the American Airlines Theatre.
The three hours and 45 minutes evaporated as the Tyrone family, magnificently played by all — Gabriel Byrne as Mary’s husband, James, the hard-drinking, cheapskate former matinee idol; Michael Shannon as their alcohol ne’er-do-well elder son, Jamie; and John Gallagher Jr. as the tubercular, poetic younger son, Edmund — tangled in their web of anger, blame, regret and delusion that suffocates the love they have for each other.
This Roundabout Theatre Company production, directed by Jonathan Kent and running through June 26, is so raw and real that it brought back the connection I felt when I first discovered this great work by Eugene O’Neill in college. Back then, I felt I was encountering my mother and her family, who by the way were O’Neills (no known relationship), on every page. This is the very reason I have wanted to avoid the play in later years.
It is a powerful drama about four people who definitely need to get away from one another but who are bound by their dependency — all of them financially on James, who prospered so well in his one commercial role that he abandoned his dream of being a serious actor, much to his regret now. Their emotional dependancies, though, are the real tragedy of the play.
In the 2003 Broadway revival, Vanessa Redgrave played Mary and although she won a Tony Award for Best Actress, her performance left me unaffected. I didn’t feel any vulnerability. She was for me a great actress playing vulnerable, but she remained strong, as she always does when I see her. I felt the same when she starred in The Year of Magical Thinking.
But Lange’s Mary is so fragile I marveled that she could keep going. She begins as the restless wife who has loved her husband even as she blames him for her drug addiction and taking her away from her plans to be either a concert pianist or a nun. With Lange it’s easy to see the gentle convent school girl at the heart of the broken woman. She brings out Mary’s youthful quality, making her decline all the more sad.
At the start, James sums up the family’s mode of functioning when Jamie wants to avoid talking about his lazy, worthless existence.
“Yes, forget! Forget everything and face nothing! It’s a convenient philosophy if you’ve no ambition in life except to —,” he says before Mary quiets him.
One of O’Neill’s dominate themes is that humankind cannot bear too much reality. The Tyrones embody this theme, and the show’s production team plays on it nicely. Natasha Katz’s lighting enhances the family’s escape from reality by shadowing in dimness Tom Pye’s set of the Tyrones' shabby Connecticut beach house. The lack of light is attributed to James’ unwillingness to make “the Electric Light Company rich,” but it symbolizes the darkness of how the family deals with its pain. (My grandfather Patrick O’Neill used to nag his children to turn off the lights, saying, “The gas company’s as rich as cream,” the term “gas company” being a holdover from his childhood in Ireland.)
The Tyrones are definitely not ready to shed a light on their reality.
“None of us can help the things life has done to us,” Mary says bitterly. “They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”
The men have learned to cope by escaping into their drinking. Mary relies on morphine, a drug she became addicted to after Edmund’s painful birth.
The play, which captures in one day in 1912, takes place shortly after Mary has returned from her latest hospitalization (detox) and the family carries on as if she has overcome her addiction this time. But it isn’t long before even these people so practiced in deception have to admit the truth.
“What’s the good of talk,” James says to the boys with resignation turning to bitterness. “We’ve lived this before and now we must again. There’s no help for it. Only I wish she hadn’t led me to hope this time. By God, I never will again!”
But when he is with Mary, he tries to reason with her.
“Dear Mary! For the love of God, for my sake and the boys’ sake and your own, won’t you stop now?”
Mary is stubborn in her denial.
“Stop what? What are you talking about? James! We love each other! We always will! Let’s remember only that, and try not to understand what we cannot understand, or help things that cannot be helped — the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”
With Lange and Byrne we can see love in their gestures, the hand holding and hugs, and the way they look at each other. But they are mired in resentment, Mary toward James for bringing in a cheap hotel doctor for Edmund’s birth who covered up his incompetence by giving her morphine. James resents the guilt he refuses to acknowledge in his role in Mary downfall and mourns for the Shakespearean career he never had.
“The past is the present, isn’t it,” Mary asks. “It’s the future too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.”
The inability to escape the past — and these people try hard — is another of O’Neill’s themes. It’s heavy stuff, but this ensemble of actors are convincing as a family who has been down these roads many times before.
Lange actually has been on Mary’s journey before, earning an Olivier Award nomination for her performance in the role on the West End in 2012.
After hours of moving portrayal, Lange is most heartbreaking in the final scene when Mary, far gone into to her morphine world, slowly walks into the living room wearing a long white nightgown (costumes by Jane Greenwood) and dragging her wedding dress. The men, soused from a night of drinking, are frozen like an oil painting in the darkened background as Mary comes to the front of the stage into a spotlight, in what is the most light to grace the stage all night. In a soft, quiet voice she recalls telling Mother Elizabeth that she wanted to become a nun, but Mother Elizabeth told her to go out into the world for awhile before making her decision.
“After I left her, I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would alway love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.”
Lange looks lost and alone, as she ever so quietly says the final lines.
“That was in the winter of senior year. 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.”
Silence should have been mandatory after that, in appreciation for Lange’s frail, damned Mary, for all the cast and for O’Neill who created such as work of beauty and pain. Time is needed to absorb the feelings before the standing ovation that was most definitely deserved.