A dreamy, vortex-like quality presides over former National Theatre director Richard Eyre’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, currently playing at BAM Harvey Theater and headed by a top-notch cast, including Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville as James and Mary Tyrone.
The effect starts with Rob Howell’s semi-abstract set, which swirls with watery blues and greens that ripple as the room recedes upstage, but extends beyond the physical production to the performances, especially Lesley Manville’s feverishly brilliant portrayal of Mary.
Manville, even more so than Jessica Lange (who won a Tony Award for the role in the last major production of Eugene O’Neill’s four-act magnum opus at Roundabout Theatre Company), brings out Mary’s childlike qualities, her voice floating mainly in its upper register as she clings to past regrets and spins a web of illusions that binds her family together even as it careens toward its ruination.
Jeremy Irons is her match as husband James Tyrone, despite some issues with garbled diction throughout. Irons succeeds at bringing out the duality of James’s devotion to his family and alternately, his sabotage of their greatest needs – Mary’s for a home, his son Edmund’s need for the best medical care.
Within the canon of great twentieth-century drama, O’Neill’s chief recurring leitmotif is that of unfulfilled potential. It’s a theme that carries through his major works, most notably in The Iceman Cometh with its exploration of “pipe dreams” amongst the denizens of a down-and-out saloon, but it’s used most effectively when it’s applied, as it is here, to the inner workings of a flawed but relatable family.
Each member of this broken brood has his or her own vice – the men all have drink, and Mary has an addiction to morphine that has, in the past, led to stays at sanitoriums for rehabilitation. In addition to succumbing to booze, James, a famous actor, has found that recent roles have left him artistically bankrupt. Elder son James Jr. (Rory Keenan) enjoys the company of wayward women, and Edmund (Matthew Beard) suffers from a pesky cough that may signify more serious health concerns. Layered atop present miseries are past mistakes. As Mary declares, “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that, but life won’t let us.”
This production, which originated at the Bristol Old Vic in the UK, imposes a vibrant physicality to the Tyrone family’s struggle. Considering the nearly three-and-a-half-hour running time, director Eyre keeps scenes moving at a sprightly pace as characters lash out at one another and retreat to their respective corners. As an approach, it’s somewhat uncharacteristic of productions of O’Neill, but it’s a dance that works in the production’s favor, particularly given the strength of Manville’s centering presence.
If there’s a reason to see this Long Day’s Journey, it’s to watch Ms. Manville transform from the relatively docile Mary of the play’s opening scene, having seemingly recovered from her latest bout with addiction, to (spoiler alert) the whimpering woman we see before us at play’s end, dressed only in a nightgown and clutching her wedding dress like a mad Miss Havisham. If her portrayal lacks some subtlety, she makes up for it with the sheer force of will with which she mines Mary’s determination to discover, within the murky depths of the past, a home for herself, beyond her responsibility to her family – and a selfhood at the basest level that she might inhabit completely, finally unbound.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs to May 27, 2018. More production info can be found here.