Review: “Long Day’s Journey into Night” at Wallis Annenberg

REVIEWED BY RUTH WALD (Performance of June 10, 2018).

Image result for jeremy irons long day's journey into night

Magnificent is the only word for Richard Eyre’s acclaimed Bristol Old Vic production of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” now playing at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Great parts are hard to come by and great actors are always challenging themselves. In this defining American drama of a family driven by alcoholism and addiction, Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons gives his most realized performance as James Tyron, an aging matinee idol and penny-pinching alcoholic.  Olivier Award winner and Oscar nominated Lesley Manville is mesmerizing as his wife, the frenetic morphine addicted Mary Tyrone, who once wanted to be a nun.

This landmark American play, in the hands of the brilliant director Eyre, is still as emotionally powerful and relevant as if it were written today.  The outstanding cast works as a well-tuned ensemble with Leslie Manville as the intense, riveting focal point. Although Eyre’s stage direction is exceptional, with the actors doing “business” all the time, when Ms. Manville is onstage, all eyes are on her.

This autobiographical portrait of a dysfunctional Irish-American family was so blatantly his that O’Neill requested his wife not to publish the play, written in 1941, until 25 years after his death.  Fortunately, his wishes were ignored and the play had its American premiere in 1956, only three years after he died.

James, Mary and their two grown sons, Jamie, a debauched ne’er-do-well (a terrific Rory Keenan) and Edmund, the sickly would-be poet (and O’Neill’s alter-ego, Matthew Beard) are spending the summer at their family vacation home, somewhere in Connecticut near the ocean.

As the play opens, the sun is rising. James, happily smoking his morning cigar is hopeful that his wife, who looks well, is in recovery, having just returned from a sanitarium.  Jamie and Edmund are laughing and in good spirits as they come into breakfast. When James lovingly compliments Mary on how well she looks,  Mary complains that the foghorns (or is it James’ snoring?) have kept her awake all night.  Suspicions are aroused as to why she slept in the guest room and like the tides of the sea, the family interactions start to ebb and flow, swinging between love and hate… teasing, apologizing, verbally wounding each other and retreating.  Through the sparks there are moments one can see true passion between James and Mary as they struggle to remember the way things used to be and why they loved each other.

As day turns into night, and the three men keep drinking until they are all in a drunken stupor; the revelations and recriminations get deeper and more revealing. Most of the time, Eyre keeps the action at a furious pace and then he gives us moments where both the actors and the audience can pause and contemplate. A very doped up Mary quietly says, “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last, everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.

As things get uglier and there is nothing left but rage and despair, it is evident that no one here can escape the past and the delusions that creep into their memory only distract them from the present. Again, Mary laments, “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.” As the play ends, Mary, in a drug induced fog, is like a ghost telling a haunted story of hope and religious fervor; she is not even aware it’s her own any more.

The evocative set, designed by Rob Howell, features spacious floor to ceiling glass walls and windows that reflect not only the characters and their emotional turmoil on the inside, but the changing sky and surrounding sea on the outside.

The lighting design by Peter Mumford magically creates an atmospheric presence as the play progresses from early morning light to nighttime lamplight, using the light to underscore and punctuate the characters in a symphonic way.

The costumes, also designed by Mr. Howell are fantastically detailed.  Jamie’s pants are grass stained after he comes in from cutting the hedges.  The maid Cathleen’s (Jessica Regan) uniform has sweat stains under the arms and on her back after she has been cooking in a hot kitchen.

John Leonard is the first-rate sound designer.

The exclusion West Coast engagement at the Annenberg runs through July 1.


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