There are two main reasons to once again undergo Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which opened Sunday at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.
The first is Lesley Manville’s breathtaking performance as Mary Tyrone, who is played not as an excuse for flamboyant virtuosity but as a credible wife and mother imprisoned in addiction. The second is Jeremy Irons’ suave and subtle portrayal of James Tyrone — one consummate actor stepping into the raffish skin of another.
This Bristol Old Vic production, which was recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is directed by Richard Eyre with a crisp grasp of the family psychodynamics that are the play’s engine. The semi-autobiographical drama “of old sorrow, written in tears and blood,” according to O’Neill, and so painful to him that it was only published posthumously, unfolds as a series of confessions provoked by confrontations that all the talking in the world will never resolve.
But talk these characters must, and they do so with the right combination of desperate need, raw anguish and murderous resentment. The verbal drama is presented here almost along Chekhovian lines, with characters reaching out momentarily from their isolation to voice their dreams and despair without any real hope that they will be able to change their situations.
The set by Rob Howell doesn’t create a realistic facsimile of the Connecticut summerhouse in which O’Neill spent his boyhood summers. A tall wall of books, high ceilings and furniture that might not be amiss in the lobby of a boutique hotel that’s been downgraded a star or two create an effect that’s more modern than the period clothes Howell also designed.
Eyre wants to preserve the play’s theatrical architecture. Though rooted in personal memory, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is first and foremost a play. People don’t sit for hours on end reviewing their lives and firing off (then walking back) recriminations. The past is mediated by art.
Eyre conducts the dialogue at a rapid clip. Conversations crisscross and dart — and not always comprehensibly. Even tart Cathleen (Jessica Regan), one of the servants at the house, speaks and listens with unusual velocity. Patterns take precedence over precise content. Characters thrust and parry, attack and apologize, admit love, then punish the loved one for it.
In keeping with the production’s theatricalized realism, Rory Keenan’s Jamie and Matthew Beard’s Edmund are flamboyant filial figures as much as they are grown sons with troubled minds. A bit more attention to the cultural milieu, however, is needed so that we don’t distract ourselves trying to locate accents that sound as if they were picked up by watching the Bowery Boys movies and hanging out in South Boston pubs.
The lads’ performances are daring, but the bold strokes sometimes call attention to themselves. Keenan and Beard don’t make it easy for us to suspend disbelief and accept them as brothers. Yet the play ensnares us all the same.
“Long Day’s Journey” shows the rippling effect of addiction in a family. As Mary succumbs once again to her morphine habit, which began with a cheap quack treating the arthritic pain in her hands, the men around her try to protect themselves and her from what they’re helpless to stop. Irons’ James vents his frustration at his wife only to shield her from the criticism he knows she’ll turn into an excuse for another pharmacy trip with Cathleen.
In playing a thespian, Irons (who won an Oscar for his performance in “Reversal of Fortune”) is free to indulge in histrionic flourishes, but his reactions are grounded in psychological truth. He plays a man of unrestrained impulses whose mind is flooded by second thoughts.
Mary describes him best when she says, “He doesn’t understand a home. He doesn’t feel at home in it. And yet, he wants a home.” These lines, uttered by Manville in her combustible mix of indictment and pardon, lead us to the heart of O’Neill’s tragic vision.
Her Mary is a completely believable creation. This is not a gauzy figure of memory, but a flesh-and-blood woman who affects weakness while asserting an iron will. She wanders around the stage in a white dress, but it’s herself that she’s haunting as she reflects on the choices that have led her so far astray from the life she imagined as a convent school girl.
As sad as she is savage, Manville’s Mary keeps reality nervously at bay only to hurl hurtful truths at those she feels are about to call her bluff. She tells herself that Edmund’s disturbing cough is just a bad summer cold, but she knows the sound of TB from her father who died of it, his death accelerated by drinking much in the same way that Edmund’s taste for his father’s whiskey is threatening to put him into an early grave.
“Long Day’s Journey” transcends the subject matter of addiction, but Mary’s dependence on her pain medication is front and center in a way that resonates with today’s spiraling opioid epidemic. This is the face of a junkie, the proud, pretty wife of a successful actor-manager who has become a prominent landowner in the small town they ambivalently retreat to every summer.
Manville (working with the precision she demonstrated in her Oscar-nominated performance in “Phantom Thread”) permits us to sympathize with her character over her lonely marriage to a touring ham who would rather be gabbing away with his pals in a barroom than making a real home with her. But she doesn’t let Mary off the hook by diminishing her flaws or excusing her delusions. She is a Tyrone through and through, which is to say she’s as much an accomplice as a victim.
In a production with actors as adroit as Manville and Irons, it’s only natural that Keenan and Beard would do their most supple work when acting opposite one of them. Alone together, they have less success. The intense scene late in the play, in which Jamie lovingly warns Edmund not to trust him if he wants to survive, exhausts more than it devastates.
But without sentimentalizing in the least, Irons’ James allows us to sympathize with a husband and father who’s helpless to undo the damage everyone blames him for. And Manville’s last scene closes the circle of the play’s meaning. Released into a morphine haze, Mary becomes a phantom doomed to roam in a purgatory of regret.
O’Neill’s tragedy wounds without providing the salve of catharsis. But the acting artistry of Manville and Irons redeems this grueling journey into the heart of a family’s darkness.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’
Where: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills
When: 7:30 Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends July 1
Tickets: $35-$105 (subject to change)
Information: (310) 746-4000 or thewallis.org/longdays