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New York City Theater

"Long Day’s Journey Into Night"
American Airlines Theater

How do you climb a mountain? First, you stand in awe. Then you make the attempt, hoping but maybe not expecting, to reach the summit.

So it is with critiquing Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” one of the American theater’s most towering achievements. Written, as the author said, “in tears and blood” and revived several times, it’s a piercing classical tragedy, observing the unities of time, place and action.

In Roundabout Theater’s current incarnation, Jessica Lange is Mary Cavan Tyrone, that haunted drug addict, hooked on morphine given to her initially by a “quack” doctor to ease the pain after giving birth to son Edmund. As a woman who played piano and wanted to be a nun before meeting famed actor James Tyrone and being “so happy, for a time,” Lange, her hands in constant motion, her eyes glazed, her voice low and threatening when furious but defensive, high and girlish when flirtatious and disingenuous, gives a memorable, if somewhat studied performance. Staving off the demons as best she can, Mary can be flirtatious and biting, gentle and shrewd. With Cathleen (an amusing Colby Minifie), the Tyrone maid, she’s lucid and light-hearted; with family, she’s as dense as the fog which eventually envelops home and inhabitants.

Embodying contradictions at one and the same time, imperceptibly switching from loving to hateful, apologetic to defiant, Lange is but one character who, under Jonathan Kent’s perceptive direction, brings out the play’s dichotomies more than other productions. “I can’t help hating your guts,” says Jamie to brother Edmund. Then, in the next speech “I love you more than I hate you.”

Gabriel Byrne’s James Tyrone swings from miserly to generous, sympathetic to remote. Through Byrne, we see the love for Mary that disintegrates into worry and disappointment and resignation. A onetime matinee idol whose Shakespeare rivaled Edwin Booth’s, he’s now confined to endlessly playing the Count of Monte Cristo, per audience demand.

Disappointment sweeps up Jamie and Edmund, also. Jamie, a promising actor, takes refuge in drink and whores. “A wreck,” says his father, “a drunken hulk, done with and finished.” As for Edmund, “a stranger who never feels at home.” he suffers from incipient consumption, which Mary treats like a summer cold. “There’s the makings of a poet in you,” says Tyrone, to which Edmund protests that he doesn’t have the makings, “only the habit.”

Michael Shannon, although not quite dissipated, infuses Jamie with physical and emotional size, a figure obviously headed for destruction. As Edmund, the Eugene O’Neill character, John Gallagher, Jr. hints at the rebelliousness and fire that will blaze forth one day.

Tom Pye’s askew set, Jane Greenwood’s subdued costumes, Clive Goodwin’s disturbing sound design and, especially Natasha Katz’s extraordinary lighting, practically a character in itself, give physical shape to a rewarding, long (nearly four-hour) evening.

Facing his dead at last, O’Neill infused his play abut his family with truths and lies, realties and illusions, hate and love, a realization that “the past is the present (and) the future, too.” It’s a masterpiece, no doubt, and in good hands.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 16, 2016

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