The title Eugene O’Neill gave to his autobiographical play about his highly dysfunctional family — Long Day’s Journey Into Night — instantly gets you thinking about time. We all know it’s relative and plastic. But how does time apply to Jonathan Kent’s completely satisfying Broadway revival with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr., starring as Mary, James, Jamie and Edmund Tyrone — the stand-ins for O’Neill’s immediate family unit?
The drama takes place over the course of a single day. Actually, over less than 24 hours. Beginning as the Tyrones finish breakfast in a room only partially seen in Tom Pye’s depiction of a Victorian home in New London, Connecticut, it follows the four — with short visits from maid Cathleen (Colby Minifie) — until sometime in the early hours of the next day. In other words, the day’s journey exposes the Tyrones as they’re caught in their ceaseless, internecine throes for approximately 15 hours.
Perhaps that’s an insignificant duration by some measures, but O’Neill tells us it’s a long day and it’s one made seemingly longer by the compulsive confessions and repetitious quarrels that the Tyrones have with each other, practically nonstop. (The play runs nearly four hours, and that’s another matter of expanded and constricted time. Albert Einstein himself would have had a hell of a challenge explaining why a play in which time goes by so slowly paradoxically also goes by so swiftly!)
I dwell on the question of time because, for the Tyrones, its weight and its sorrows are so very heavy. Time here gives a jarring sensation, one made palpable by Natasha Katz’s sometimes subtle, sometimes abrupt lighting; and by Clive Goodwin’s sound, which is given to fog horns moaning unrelievedly, as if announcing death’s approach, and by the incessant sloshing of restless waves from the body of water menacingly near the Tyrones’ summer retreat.
Since Long Day’s Journey… has no honest-to-goodness storyline, it falls into the slice-of-life category. O’Neill’s, however, is no thin slice. It’s a thick hunk of secrets, lies and ingrained resentments that are repeatedly heated up, simmered and brought to a boil, then temporarily cooled and boiled once again.
Lange’s Mary, seemingly improved after recovering from a morphine addiction, has become a recidivist template, though she acts as if she has no problem whatsoever. So do they all until they can longer keep up the charade. Edmund obviously is not suffering from a summer cold but from consumption — which a physician, possibly compromised, verifies before the long day ends.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Time here gives a jarring sensation.[/pullquote]But James has lost patience with Mary’s demurrals; he’s tired of his sons’ harping on his stinginess. Yet there’s no denying how well-practiced he is at pinching pennies, even when decent medical attention is warranted for Jamie. And Jamie, a so-so actor in his father’s summer-hiatus acting troupe, is a nearly hopeless alcoholic. His drinking and womanizing disgusts the others but nowhere near so much as his vices disgust himself. (O’Neill devotees know that self-loathing recurs when Jamie visits Josie Hogan in A Moon for the Misbegotten.)
Holding his magnifying glass over the Tyrones, O’Neill exhibits them going after each other in different combinations. They repeatedly slash each other verbally and often just as speedily retract their claws and accusations. At least once, thrown punches are literal.
Over and over, Mary objects to being watched. She worries that her white hair is coming undone. (Is this a metaphor?) Over and over, Mary angers when James or Jamie refuse to agree that Edmund’s illness is temporary. Over and over, James attacks Jamie for lacking ambition. Over and over, both Jamie and Edmund kid James about his parsimony.
As is often the case in O’Neill, some would label it prolix, these reiterated and reiterated hostilities. On the other hand, the playwright is reflecting life as it’s lived. Cumulatively, he captures the feel of that long Tyrone day. The sequences in which Mary and James, who indisputably love — or once loved — each other, are heartbreaking. The rivalry between Jamie and Edmund, their devotion to each other, their alliance against their old man — these are all thoroughly recognizable.
Playing their scenes in Jane Greenwood’s period costumes, the actors hold nothing back, which is what O’Neill demands of them. Lange was Mary Tyrone in a 2000 London revival that I saw. She was strong at Mary’s timorousness then. Fifteen years later she’s even stronger, more evanescent. She’s a leaf in a swift wind as she marshals a pretense that she recognizes is not convincing, yet she carries on as if it is.
Byrne’s very Irish James presents a man weary from carrying on with a disappointing stage career and failing to control his household and his disappointing sons. Shannon and Gallagher (the latter appearing more robust than would a consumptive) are in tune with the somber material, and never more than when confronting each other in their final sequence. Shannon’s performance is superbly multi-dimensional.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The best American play of the 20th century.[/pullquote]Long Day’s Journey… is the best American play of the 20th century. All other American plays about dysfunctional families, no matter how excellent, register as no more than variations on it, just as all plays about functional families, with far fewer examples, register as no more than variations on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Plays of this caliber aren’t foolproof, of course. To the contrary, they can be ill-served, and when they are, the result can be far worse than the disservice done to mediocre works. Judged from that perspective, no damaging disservice has been done here. Quite the opposite. This is a Long Day’s Journey… that should be seen, especially by theater lovers who haven’t previously seen it. It’s a sterling revival.
There was a time in theater history when an actual curtain rising as a play began and falling as it ended was obligatory. A set designer friend continues to mourn the frequent loss of that theatrical amenity — most often at the end of a drama when something devastating has occurred. Director Kent has effectively decreed that a billowing curtain is pulled across the stage to end and begin scenes, and no curtain descends after Lange utters her bittersweet final line. She delivers it extremely well, but were there a curtain slowly falling then rather than a fade to black, O’Neill’s long day’s purpose would be far more crushingly achieved.