Monday, June 6, 2016

The Great American Tragedy: The Latest Long Day’s Journey into Night

John Gallagher Jr. and Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey into Night at Roundabout Theatre Co.’s American Airlines Theatre. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night is the greatest of all American plays, and every time someone mounts a fine new production of it, the effect on those of us who adore it is two-fold. On the one hand, we’re sucked back into the play’s riptide – its crosscurrents of conflicting realities as each of the four Tyrones fights against the others for his or her version of family history, the shifting alliances, the repeatedly dredged-up memories, the intricate interplay of guilt and recrimination. Like the great tragedies of the Greeks and of Shakespeare, this is a play that keeps biting you, digging at you; when it’s performed well there’s no safe space for an audience. And on the other hand, a worthy new mounting always reimagines the characters – especially Mary, the morphine-addicted matriarch whose husband James and grown-up sons Jamie and Edmund discover, on this August day in 1912 at their Connecticut home, that after a period of hopeful sobriety she’s relapsed. In Sidney Lumet’s 1962 film version, Katharine Hepburn brings her entire thirty-year career into her performance: the regal star presence and oddball mannerisms and air of authority apparent from her earliest screen appearances, the peerless technique for high comedy showcased in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, the gift for transforming masochism into emotional devastation from Summertime and The Rainmaker, the ability to shift from one age to another with delicate precision that had been a hallmark of her work since her portrayal of Jo in Little Women. I think it’s the greatest performance by an American film actress since the advent of sound. Colleen Dewhurst, in a version performed at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven in 1988, seemed to grow slighter and less substantial as the evening wore on, so that by the turbulent last act, when she appeared with her wedding gown in her arms, she was like a ghost carrying a smaller ghost. When Vanessa Redgrave played Mary on Broadway in Robert Falls’ superb 2005 revival, she injected an element of savagery; she seemed to strip down the character and rebuild it physically, drawing on her Amazonian frame to elevate her. It was a creation of dissonant grandeur. Now Jessica Lange is playing the role in a magnificent new production at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre staged by the English director Jonathan Kent. What she brings to the role are an edgy lyricism, a bitter humor and an earthy quality that’s utterly unlike anything I’ve seen in other Marys. Anyone who has loved Lange in movies like Tootsie, Frances, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Crimes of the Heart, Music Box and Blue Sky will recognize her here in a performance that certainly marks the zenith of her acting career.

O’Neill completed “this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood” about his own family in 1941 but wouldn’t allow it to be performed until “all four haunted Tyrones,” including himself, were dead. (It opened on Broadway in 1956 with Fredric March, March’s wife Florence Eldridge, Jason Robards and Bradford Dillman.) A four-act work of consummate naturalism in which even the description of the house is drawn from memory, it begins after breakfast, checks in just after noon and at dinnertime, and ends around midnight. It dramatizes the day on which the family learns not only that Mary has started using again but also that the younger son, Edmund (O’Neill’s version of himself), has tuberculosis (consumption, as it’s still called in these pre-World War I days), and in the course of these sixteen or so hours they return, over and over again, to all the events that led them to this agonizing present. They consist of Mary’s giving up her twin dreams of a nun’s life and a pianist’s career to marry the matinee idol James Tyrone; James’ childhood poverty after his father deserted the family and his resulting miserliness; his sacrificing his youthful promise as a Shakespearean actor to buy a commercial theatrical vehicle that he stuck to for decades; his drinking and touring, which left Mary without a real home or real society; the death of their second son, infected by Jamie’s measles; the pain of her delivery of Edmund, which led to a cheap hotel doctor’s prescribing morphine and beginning her dependence on it; Jamie’s alcoholism and whoremongering, vices to which he introduced Edmund. The play circles back to these topics in waves. The men get drunk to try to forget them, but the booze cruelly refuses to give them that respite. Mary takes more and more dope to numb herself, but though it has the effect of transporting her farther from her husband sons, in the end, suspended on a cloud of morphine, she has retreated, perhaps irretrievably, into her spectral past.

At the beginning of Kent’s production, a curtain glides across the front of the stage as we hear the dim sound of children’s laughter and as it disappears offstage right the adult family is revealed: Jamie (Michael Shannon) and Edmund (a slick-haired, mustached John Gallagher, Jr.) still at the breakfast table in an upstage alcove, James (Gabriel Byrne) and Mary strolling down into the living room. Tom Pye’s set, framed by a long staircase stage right, is spacious, comfortable, but sparsely furnished and inelegant, confirming Mary’s later comment about how cheaply and inattentively James put it together so that it’s always felt like no more than a summer home, though it’s the place where they now live year round. In some Long Day’s Journeys (like the one José Quintero directed with Dewhurst and Jason Robards, graduating to the role of Tyrone) the opening scene is played for domestic comedy, the warning signs blowing in, almost imperceptibly at first, on the summer breeze. Here, though Byrne locates the wit in his lines immediately and the way the actors overlap their lines (which continues throughout act one) gives their first exchanges a convivial family atmosphere, we’re uneasy from the outset. Gallagher’s gravelly voice underscores Edmund’s ever-present illness; though Shannon’s Jamie accepts his father’s reflexive criticism stoically, his long, crushed face takes it all in and he eyes his mother warily, as if her return to blooming health is too good to believe; and Mary catches his attentiveness and pauses awkwardly in mid-anecdote. And even before this we pick up on her restlessness, her tendency to glide, even waltz, backward through the room.

Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey Into Night. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Other Tyrones have emphasized the character’s old-school theatricality – that was the keynote of Ralph Richardson’s approach in the Lumet film – but what you get immediately from Byrne is James’ distinctly Irish love of gab, which is sometimes a kind of shield for him: he comes into a room so buoyed up by his own conversation that he doesn’t immediately pick up on the dire shifts in mood. His treatment of his elder son, a source of continual disappointment to him, is often unfair but it’s instinctual: Jamie’s very presence sets him off. (This is one of dozens of examples in the play of the characters’ inability to lay the ghosts of their past: James can’t look at Jamie without revisiting every one of his offenses in his mind.) And Shannon is a revelation as Jamie. In his movies he can be a dreadful blowhard, but here he’s nuanced, understated, as if he realized that this time he’s working with material that’s far too precious to screw up. And he’s often hilarious, mining the humor in lines that have never received a laugh in any production I’ve seen, like Jamie’s reply to his father’s accusation that he sneers at everything except himself: “That’s not true, Papa. You can’t hear me talking to myself, that’s all.” (He does the same later with his riposte to his father’s comment about the Irish in his face: “Not after I wash my face.”)

As for Lange, she’s heartbreaking even in the first act, when she runs out of breath as she laments her rheumatic, once-beautiful hands; when she turns on Jamie after he warns her to be careful (he’s alluding obliquely to her addiction) and she pretends not to know what he’s talking about; when she speaks longingly of snobby neighbors who enjoy a social life that’s been denied her. And especially in the scene at the end of the act with Edmund where, rambling around the room, she veers from complaining about everyone’s suspicions of her to expressing her loneliness, her emotions uncontrolled, and Edmund can’t calm her down. Lange and Gallagher are extraordinary together; I’ve never seen this scene performed more complexly or more movingly. This is the moment when Edmund admits that he heard his mother walking around upstairs and going to sleep in the spare room, details that replayed her behavior when she was on morphine in the past; when her first, hurt reaction gives way to “It would serve all of your right if it was true!” you can see in his eyes that he knows that’s the way she talks when the drug distances her from them, even turns her against them. Then she proclaims that she’s going upstairs to take a nap and he can’t look her in the eye because he’s afraid of what she really means.

Gallagher received mediocre reviews for this performance, and he was the only one of the four leading actors not to receive a Tony nomination. I’d say that this startlingly talented young actor, whom I’ve loved on stage before (in American Idiot and Spring Awakening), in movies (Short Term 12 and Margaret) and on TV (The Newsroom and Olive Kitteridge), has never been better. He has exactly the right sensitivity for the role and he’s the most boyish Edmund I’ve encountered; we’re constantly reminded that he’s the baby of the family. Shannon plays against his youthful emotionality with his air of detachment and his insistence on driving home the ugly truths Jamie is more forthright about than anyone else in the family. The two brothers’ different rhythms make a striking counterpoint in their scenes together. In the first scene of the second act, it’s Jamie who first realizes that his mother is back in the clutches of the drug when she strides onstage, her voice out of control, her anger unprovoked. His eyes examine hers carefully, pitilessly, his face battens down and he can’t look at her anymore; he retreats to the bookshelf with his head back to her and his head on his arm. One by one the men see the proof of what’s happened to her, and at the end of the scene they stand, paralyzed by their despair, in different parts of the room as she wanders through it, ranting. (Kent’s staging, here and throughout the play, is beautiful, poetic.) The scene ends with Lange’s anguished outburst, “James, I tried. I tried so hard,” as she throws herself into his arms before pushing him away again, denying it.

The way Lange plays Mary, you can never predict when she’s going to salt in the character’s anger and bitterness. I thought I knew this role by heart, but she gives it an entirely new set of accents. Before all the men leave her after lunch, she has a scene with Byrne in which she throws his disappointment with her in his face, grabbing him by the collar when she invites him to come upstairs and watch her if he thinks she’s just going to take another shot, lacing the line (in response to his “I’m not your jailer. This isn’t a prison”), “No, I know you can’t help thinking it’s a home” with poison. And then, instead of making her next, “I’m sorry, dear. I didn’t mean to be bitter. It’s not your fault,” contrite, a concession, she swings around and doubles down on the bitterness. Lange and Byrne are so comfortable together, and their interplay is so loving, even when it’s contentious and sorrowful, that you believe absolutely in this marriage. They’re even sexy together. When Mary’s alone with the maid Cathleen (Colby Minifie) during the afternoon and tells her the story about being taken backstage by her father to meet the famous actor when she was still a convent schoolgirl, her confession that once she did she gave up all thoughts of becoming a nun makes both of them howl with laughter.

Michael Shannon and Jessica Lange in Long Day's Journey into Night. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

While it enhances all her emotions, the morphine makes Lange’s voice more velvety and her movement more sensuous and wavering, like that of a candle flame. She makes a throwaway line like “I wanted to say something. What was it? I’ve forgotten” a small, tragic defeat, an acknowledgement of all the things that have slipped away from her, all the things she’s lost. Her explanation to Cathleen that the prescription she sent her to fetch at the drugstore is “a special kind of medicine” she needs for her hands because nothing else takes away the pain has a wondrous, fairy-story tone, as if she were feeling her way through a dark, misty wood. When Edmund, returning home, gets exasperated over her having entrusted gossipy, tactless Cathleen with this mission because all the neighborhood will know about it and she responds, going on the offensive, by implicitly blaming him for her addiction, she resembles an ancient Fury floating toward him on the air. Kent stages some of Lange’s most poignant moments, like her speech about her inability to pray anymore to the Virgin Mary, on a bench downstage left. They’re like great close-up moments in a movie, and at these times the lyrical quality of her presence harks all the way back to Lillian Gish in the D.W. Griffith and Victor Sjöstrom silent that really set the bar for great camera acting, and set it for all time.

The production has so many marvelous things in it that it’s impossible to list them all here, but let me offer a few more. Byrne does a lovely small take on James’ miserliness: when he gives Edmund, setting out for his fateful meeting with the doctor, money for carfare he turns away so his son can’t see how much he’s got in his wallet. Gallagher does a wonderful job with Edmund’s two big fourth-act speeches, the one about the fog and the one about the sea; both Natasha Katz’s lighting, which becomes ghostly in the third and fourth acts – you can see the characters’ reflections in the upstage picture windows – and Clive Goodwin’s sound design underscore it. (The sound of the lapping water of the Connecticut River beyond the house suddenly takes on the character of the sea in Edmund’s memory of Buenos Aires.) In act four, when James and Edmund, alone in the sparely lit living room – evidence of James’ obsessive and unreasonable cheapness – confide in each other, each sharing portions of his experience the other never knew of before, Byrne and Gallagher, with seeming effortlessness, convince us utterly that we’re watching a father with his son. (There’s a funny little moment when they make an attempt, with the clumsiness of two undemonstrative men, to embrace.) The speech you wait for every Tyrone to try his hand at is the great one that begins, “That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in . . . it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune” and ends, achingly, “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth -- ”. I’ve heard it performed by many a great actor: Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Robert Ryan, William Hutt, Brian Dennehy, and (most brilliantly, I’d say) Christopher Plummer, who nailed it in a PBS documentary about O’Neill that aired on The American Experience. Byrne does a perfectly good job with it, but the high point of his performance is the one that precedes it, James’ description of his destitute childhood days, which he imbues with a Dickensian depth of feeling. And Shannon pulls the rug from under us by making his fourth-act drunk scene so uproarious (and marked by such imaginative and unexpected rhythms) that though we know he’s building up to Jamie’s big confession to his brother, one of the best known scenes in the play, the tonal shift is so extreme that this time it catches us by surprise. From that point he really rides the waves of the scene, with the audience clinging to him to keep our bearings in this rough, brutal sea.

The play ends, famously, with Mary drifting downstairs with her wedding gown, now so high on dope that she’s beyond the reach of her husband or her sons. Lange’s white hair is braided and drips over her shoulder onto her breast. When she appears Jamie is bent over on the floor down left, Tyrone is on his knees at the center-stage table and Edmund is up left near the door to the porch; in another context we might think we were looking at a still from a farce. It’s Lange’s metaphorical sleepwalking that makes us see it in quite a different light. As the scene goes on each of the men makes an effort to get close to Mary, to shake her out of her haze, but it’s hopeless – she slips away from all of them. As the play closes on her final speech, which takes her back to the convent, she’s sitting on the bench in a spotlight and the men are standing or sitting around the table, frozen in the dark, figures she no longer recognizes. She speaks in a musical contralto, and isn’t that the merest trace of a southern accent, a touch of Tennessee Williams? As she begins the last part, “That was in the winter of senior year,” her voice is deep and rich, but on the next, “Then in the spring something happened to me,” suddenly it sails higher. “Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone,” she recalls as if coming across a memento of an episode long forgotten, “and was so happy for a time.” The great final line hangs in the air; the stage goes black. And if you respond as I did, the image of the actors reappearing in fresh light to take their curtain calls may be blurred by your own tears.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

1 comment:

  1. This is a beautiful, exquisitely detailed, and loving review--the product of a life's knowledge of the play, of theatre and film, of acting. It helped me feel I'd watched the play even without being there. Thank you, Mr. Vineberg, and keep it up.