Had the Bristol Old Vic’s production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night played on Broadway, it might be a very different contest.
This production at BAM, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, is distinguished by the commanding performance of Lesley Manville as morphine-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone. In Phantom Thread, for which Manville was rightly Oscar-nominated this year, her character was a scene-winning, significant, watchful presence; here Mary is just as significant, but a whirl of distressed movement and calibrated meltdown.
From the beginning of Long Day’s Journey, Manville dominates the stage with Mary’s fluttering, wheeling, endlessly talkative, ruminating, nervy madness—and she makes this madness utterly comprehensible. It is rooted in the grief and guilt of a parent who has lost a child and who has now, returning home from treatment for her drug addiction, lost her place in her home and in the world at large.
If you want O’Neill at his most charged and very long, New York is the place to be. This production is near three hours and thirty minutes, while The Iceman Cometh on Broadway, starring Denzel Washington, is close to four hours. Limber up. Bring water.
In Long Day’s Journey it is 1912, and we are in the Connecticut sea-front home of the Tyrones, a family that has been in sustained freefall for years. The semi-autobiographical play won O’Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize, and the Tony for Best Play, after it premiered on Broadway in November 1956—even though these were posthumous; O’Neill died in 1953.
James (Jeremy Irons), the patriarch, is an Irish-born actor, at home with Shakespeare and the actor’s life of touring and drinking, and less so with the emotional tumult at home, and his wife’s untethered mind.
What control he can actively enforce is restricted to a miserly observance of electricity usage, and keeping the house in near-darkness. His giving into turning the living room lights on, late in the play, feels as extravagant and luxurious as a sudden hosing of caviare.
Peter Mumford’s lighting is key to the production, especially when filtering the traces of fog outside; a fog which of course is as metaphorical, in what it says about the state of the Tyrones, as it is real. With that fog comes the equally meaningful ringing of the fog-horn, a doomy and funereal peal.
The design of the Tyrones’ house, which is important as it is the only stage-set we observe, is discombobulating. The interiors and dress are absolutely 1912-appropriate, but the skeleton of the house is a starkly modern floor to ceiling glass and open plan design. It doesn’t make visual sense. The only thing on the other side of the glass seems to be the wooden walls of another structure; there is, for the Tyrones, nothing to look out on to. The fog doesn’t swirl noticeably out there. The stairs do not look like the stairs of a house of that time, and yet the tables, lighting and seating do. This might be a deliberate clashing of aesthetics, but it’s a bizarrely chosen one.
Still, we are in no doubt that this is a house of illness, delusion, and sickness of all kinds. The younger son Edmund (Matthew Beard) is ill, and will likely have to go to a sanitorium; O’Neill based the character, and the dynamics of the family, on himself and his own experiences. The play was first performed three years after his death. Edmund drinks when he shouldn’t, encouraged by his father, and spends most of the performance sozzled and barely functioning.
Older son Jamie (Rory Keenan), an actor like his father, is the most menacing stage presence. Clad initially in a white wife-beater, he snarls and is snide. He looks at his family through an empty glass, darkly. He loves booze as much as his father, and has enough self-awareness to know how much damage he is capable of. His mother blames him for the death of her third son.
Everyone is worried that Mary is back on the morphine. They seem to cannot bear her pain, and cannot bear her. She is the terrible, damning embodiment of everything wrong with them and around them.
So, what a house of mess and madness. But Mary is not simply Ophelia, as Jamie labels her in relation to Hamlet’s iconic figure of female self-doom. In her white dress and yammering neediness, gripping on to the arms of her husband, or cradling Edmund, she can appear if she is drawing and seeking any passing buoy to keep her physically and mentally afloat. She appears to have nothing to give, and is terrified of what yet may be taken from her; she cannot bear to acknowledge how ill Edmund might be.
There is also a strength to her, which Manville brilliantly reveals to us; that becomes apparent in the exchange, and ripples afterwards, with the family’s Irish maid Cathleen (Jessica Regan), who—with all her bluff, Oirish, to-be-sure heartiness is seemingly unaware of all the dysfunction occurring as she serves supper and clears up glasses. Cathleen also supplies belly laughs for an audience in dire need of them, stealing—just as Jamie and Edmund do—from James’ whiskey bottle, and topping it up again with water in the hope that he will be too drunk to notice.
Flowing from her conversation with Cathleen, we see exactly that Mary longs to be alone, that she enjoys the peace when her husband and sons disappear to a nearby bar, that she craves the solitude. When they are in the room, and when they return from the bar, she professes the entire opposite—where have they been? oh, has she has missed them—but we see that this is what she plays out as a survival mechanism within the family. It helps everyone if she believes, and says, that she needs them, and they need her.
Manville beautifully shows the clarifying aspects of Mary’s madness. How different her life would have been if she had been a nun, as her convent upbringing was leading to. Then the charismatic James entered her life, and that life has been one of following him, and look at where it has led her.
Manville is so much the anchor of the production that when she is not on stage it and the audience suddenly loses its bearings. Must we spend time with these slurring, ponderous, damaged men? Edmund is almost too lost and too vulnerable, and Beard plays him with a slightly too quiet, bruised hopelessness. Keenan’s Jamie is an emotional dervish, and O’Neill gives both boys unwieldy speeches that both actors parse as best they can. The very dark heart of Jamie’s feelings towards his brother is crystallized powerfully by Keenan.
Then there is Irons, whose dressing-gowned James is a languid man, in retreat from the reality around him, and who weaves in and out of his wife and sons’ dramas with a feline-like caution; as if he is aware of many trip-wires, and will negotiate them, armed with a bottle and glass, as well as he might. He feels he has betrayed his craft for money, which—given the state of his family—seems almost comically indulgent and self-regarding.
Reassurance is all he can offer to Mary and Edmund, but if he seems neglectful—and at the beginning in some way mentally abusive of his already-fragile wife—then as the play progresses our view of him softens. He seems to be making do, and surviving. Alcohol is his crutch, just as morphine is his wife’s.
This is a family whose tragedy is that they would like to take care of each other, but their individual flaws, neuroses, and illnesses are so great that they cannot. Instead, they hurt one another, and regret and hate themselves for doing so. Drink, morphine, sleep, and darkness are their necessary retreats.
O’Neill gives every character besides Mary large and defining speeches. But the men’s just aren’t as compelling, or compellingly related, as Mary’s and as Manville’s presence. O’Neill at his most turgid is reserved for his male characters.
Mary may be ghostly and overlooked, but she is everywhere. When she is not on stage we listen, like father and sons, for her ghostly, thudding steps above. Some of the play’s sporadic humor can be found in Manville’s constant blethering, and her husband and sons’ continuing with life around her as she does so.
Back she reaches into the past, into her parents’ marriage, into the wedding dress she wore, into memories that are both safe and terrifying, that offer refuge and also occasionally fresh and discomfiting questions.
Manville does not play these moments of stream-of-conscious monologue as the ravings of a morphine-addicted desperate and forgotten housewife. We listen intently, because for Mary they are the crumbs in her mental forest. She follows them to make some kind of sense, however futile that quest may be. The last sound the family hears, that we hear, is that damned horn, loud and final.
Performances of A Long Day’s Journey Into Night continue at BAM Harvey until May 27. Book here.