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Review: Jessica Lange Magnificently Unsettling in an Excellent LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Widely regarded as the greatest play written by a master who many would consider the greatest of American playwrights, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT is the drama Eugene O'Neill didn't want anybody to see. At least, not until he was long gone.

Jessica Lange
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Written in the early 1940s, it wasn't produced on Broadway until November of 1956, three years after his death. The play earned O'Neill his fourth Pulitzer Prize and that season's Tony for Best Play.

The similarities between the Tyrone family depicted by O'Neill and his real family readily explain why the play wasn't produced in his lifetime. He even gave them all the same first names.

The setting is August of 1912 in a Connecticut summer home much like the one where the O'Neill's spent the warm months. Like his own father, the play's family patriarch James Tyrone once was a handsome matinee idol actor who earned a tidy sum giving thousands of performances of a sweeping romantic adventure. So popular in the role was he that the public didn't care to see him in anything else. Now retired from the stage, he loses himself in alcohol to forget the pain of his career's wasted potential.

Tyrone's wife, Mary, like O'Neill's mother, gave birth to three sons, with both middle children dying of measles. In real life Eugene O'Neill was the youngest and middle brother Edmund didn't survive, but the playwright switches the identities of the two. The fictional Mary Tyrone blames eldest son, James Tyrone, Jr. for Eugene's death, believing that, at age seven, he intentionally gave his two year old brother his measles.

But the key similarity that drives the play is that both mothers, the fictional Mary and the real-life one, became addicted to the morphine her doctor prescribed after the difficult birth of her third child. Mary's resentment towards Edmund reflects what Eugene O'Neill felt coming at him from his own mother.

The play is pretty much just a typical day in the life, full of regret, animosity, heavy drinking by the men and morphine injections for mom. What makes this one different is news of a doctor's confirmation that Edmund is stricken with consumption and requires six months to a year in a sanatorium for recovery. As played by John Gallagher, Jr., sporting a mustache that helps him bear a keen resemblance to the playwright, the aspiring writer Edmund is a wry observer who might see his long-term stay as an escape from the family madhouse. The only trouble is that his thrifty father wants to settle for the cheapest option for his son's recovery. There's an interesting detachment to Gallagher's performance that emphasizes the notion that Edmund is O'Neill looking back.

John Gallagher, Jr. and
Michael Shannon
?(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Michael Shannon's dark and pitiable James, Jr. is a defeated man and a failed actor living off his father's wealth because his alcoholism, what killed O'Neill's brother, makes him incapable of supporting himself. But he sees the potential in his younger brother and his protectiveness of Edmund is touching.

Also touching is how Gabriel Byrne's James extends the same protectiveness to his wife when he isn't playing the victim of her drug-induced outbursts. Brimming with stage charm when he needs it, the moments when his passive abusiveness surface are jarring.

As formidable as the gentlemen are, it's Jessica Lange's striking performance that fuels this excellent revival. Claiming that her medicine simply eases the pain of her rheumatism, her Mary is a gritty survivor living for the memories of her coquettish youth. Like her husband, she knows how to charm, but when her anger is left unchecked she emits frightening growls of agony.

A particularly lovely scene has her inviting the young Irish maid (terrifically spunky Colby Minifie) to sit with her and have a drink while she basks in happier memories, seemingly comforted by the rare few minutes of female companionship.

Comfort flies out the window in the play's final moments, where Lange is magnificently unsettling.

The production runs at the play's normal pace of three hours and forty-five minutes (including intermission) but director Jonathan Kent's intimate and tense production barely feels that length. It's a thoroughly engrossing revival sumptuously played.

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