For their 12th wedding anniversary, Eugene O’Neill gave his wife Carlotta Long Day’s Journey Into Night. A nakedly autobiographical play about a hard-drinking thespian father, a morphine-addicted mother, and their two sons, an alcoholic sometime actor and a consumptive would-be writer. Festive!
In O’Neill’s defense, he does, in the dedication, call it a “sadly inappropriate gift…for a day celebrating happiness.” The work, he tells her, is “a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play—write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.”
There’s actually a surprising amount of love and tenderness baked into the dark and dreary Long Day’s Journey, and you’ll see a great deal of it in the Bristol Old Vic production—headlined by stage and screen stars Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville—currently playing at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
I’ve never seen a more loving portrayal of Mary Tyrone than Manville’s. It’s easy enough to play Mary the “dope fiend”—as younger son Edmund (Matthew Beard) calls her in a fit of rage—with glassy eyes, jittery hands, and fluttery movements. It’s harder to play Mary the mother, conjuring genuine, believable moments of gentleness toward the husband and children she resents so much. Her tight-fisted husband, James Tyrone (Irons), dragged her from theater to theater, town to town, and third-rate hotel to third rate hotel, never giving her “a proper home”; her son Jamie (Rory Keenan) had measles at age 7, which spread to and eventually killed baby Eugene (“I’ve always believed Jamie did it on purpose. He was jealous of the baby. He hated him.”); and it was Edmund’s birth, and a hack hotel doctor, that got her hooked on morphine. But somehow, even when they’re showering her with suspicion, Manville’s Mary looks on the men in her life—her whiskey-soaked husband, her ne’er-do-well first-born, and her sickly, bookish “baby”—with love.
Yet rarely allows herself to look at them. The more morphine she takes—the deeper Mary descends into denial and addiction—the less eye contact she makes. What’s most impressive about Manville’s performance—and it is an extremely impressive performance—is her ever-so-subtle transformation from fresh-from-the-sanatorium recovering addict into drug-dependent shell of a woman. Her speech starts to slowly gather speed. Her hands flutter more frequently to her pinned-up hair. And lest you miss the fact that Mary’s shooting up again, O’Neill practically spells it out for you. “I really love fog,” Mary tells the maid Cathleen (Jessica Regan). “It hides you from the world and the world from you.” (No one could ever accuse O’Neill of subtlety. As soon as Edmund coughs, there might as well be a neon sign that flashes “CONSUMPTION!”)
Inevitably, the energy flags when Manville is off-stage. Though it’s undeniably fun listening to Irons do Tyrone’s foreign-authors rant—“Voltaire, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Ibsen! Athiests, fools, and madmen! And your poets! This Dowson, and this Baudelaire, and Swinburne and Oscar Wilde, and Whitman and Poe! Whoremongers and degenerates! Pah!”—the blotto-brothers-bonding scene between Edmund and Jamie is what it has always been: overlong and overcooked.
Fortunately, at that point, it’ll be only moments before Mary appears one last time, high as the proverbial kite, dragging a wedding dress and dreamily recalling her teenage convent days. “What is it I’m looking for?” she asks no one in particular. “I know it’s something I lost.” Your heart could just about burst from all the love and tenderness.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night opened May 12, 2018, and runs through May 27. Tickets and information: bam.org