Jessica Lange Steers a Complex Mary Tyrone Through a Foggy Journey
By Lauren Yarger
“Once you’ve learned a lesson, it’s hard to unlearn it.”
That’s just one of many thoughts to ponder in Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Thank goodness actress Jessica Lange didn’t take it to heart and give us the same portrayal of Mary Tyrone everyone seems to have learned over the years for this Roundabout Theatre Company revival on Broadway.
Instead, two-time Academy-Award winner Lange breathes new life into Mary and makes her the center of this autobiographical family drama as a family reluctantly comes to grips with her decision to take drugs, knowing the horrible consequences her choice will have on them all.
Mary, we learn, became addicted to morphine by accident when an incompetent doctor prescribed it for her after the difficult birth of her second son, Edmund (a lackluster John Gallagher, Jr.), and he is made to feel, if subtly, that he is to blame. For years, she and her husband, James (Gabriel Byrne), and their eldest son, Jamie Jr. (Michael Shannon), hid her condition from Edmund, but later, that proved impossible. Mary just recently has returned to their summer home in Connecticut after a hospitalization and she and her family are happily in denial that anything is wrong. Until Mary starts spending time in the spare room – a portent that she is giving in to her need to escape the pain. Even if that pain is more emotional than physical these days.
Lange is mesmerizing as the “normal” Mary, the keep-up-appearances woman, joking with the boys and flirting with her husband whose actor’s good looks swept her off her feet and veered her away from her the path she desired – to be a nun. Lange gives us a glimpse of what a carefree, happy girl she once was with evidence of affection for James.
She transitions, sometimes in the blink of an eye, however, to a paranoid, cold, selfish woman hardly able to mask her contempt for those around her and for the miserable existence she lives in a house that never has felt like home to her. Set Designer Tom Pye pays homage to O’Neill’s boyhood home, Monte Christo Cottage, still standing and open to visitors in New London, CT, without meticulously recreating the living room. Lighting Designer Natasha Katz creates a mostly dark atmosphere capturing the brooding darkness about to engulf this family, despite the lonely warnings of a fog horn (though the additional sounds of insects become annoying -- Sound Design by Clive Goodwin).
Everyone is walking on eggshells (right from the get-go thanks to O’Neill’s sharp writing), trying not to face the truth about anything, whether it is Mary’s relapse into the frightening hold of narcotics, James’ stinginess and refusal to pay good money for anything from an extra energy-using light bulb to a doctor’s care (that might have saved Mary from the quack and his morphine solution). Edmund’s serious health issues get swept under the carpet too lest they remind Mary of her beloved father died, or give , Before long the sound of cracking shells is all that can be heard as the brothers and their father allow their anxiety and pent-up frustrations with each other to boil over.
I usually refer to Long Day’s Journey as a perfect play. There is little I would change, except for maybe some tweaking of the three-and-a-half hour length and it appears Director Jonathan Kent already increased the pace in some areas (some versions are almost four hours). Usually, though, the play is all about the Tyrone men with Mary wandering in and out of their angst. In this version, however, the focus is on Mary – and so it should be. In her flawed way, she has always been what held the family together and now that she seems to have lost her faith and be forming a tighter embrace with her addiction and depression, the bonds between the Tyrones are threatened.
Byrne and Shannon give solid performances and Colby Minifie as the family’s maid, Cathleen, gets a few laughs. Gallagher’s Edmund doesn’t seem charged with any emotion or even very frail except when he appears to give a few coughs on cue. Without Lange’s portrayal, I am not sure this revival would be able to stand on its own in memory of the last fabulous revival led by Brian Dennehy.
Lange, however, is a delight to watch. It’s a pleasure to see a well-known character in a new light as she takes the long journey into night and makes it personal for us.
Long Day's Journey Into Night plays through June 26 at American Airlines Theatre, 227 west 42nd St., NYC. Perfromances are Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 7 pm, with matinees on Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm and Saturday at 1 pm. Tickets are $67-$152: http://eclipsedbroadway.com; 212-719-1300,
Costume Design by Jane Greenwood; Hair and Wig Design by Tom Watson, Fight Direction by J. David Brimmer.
-- God's name taken in vain