All in the family

'Long Day's Journey into Night'

Written in tears and blood”-such were the words Eugene O’Neill used to describe Long Day’s Journey into Night, a monumental autobiographical edifice so vaulted with pain and domestic secrets that he ordered it to remain unpublished until twenty-five years after his death. Based on his own experience growing up as the son of a famous actor and a morphine-addicted mother, the drama gazes unflinchingly at the blame-slinging and self-imposed torments of a family-the Tyrones-over the course of a single day in August 1912. O’Neill died in 1953, and his widow, ignoring his wishes, ushered the script into print in 1956. It became a bestseller and snagged its author his fourth Pulitzer Prize, while the initial mounting, in Stockholm that same year, christened the work as a staple of the modern repertory.

Greatness is no easy burden even for accomplished actors, and it’s not surprising that a trace of self-conscious ponderousness clings to the initial seconds of the Long Day’s Journey now on Broadway. Under the direction of Robert Falls, who landed the 1999 Tony Award for his direction of Death of a Salesman, the production brings together an extraordinary ensemble, including Brian Dennehy-Tony-winning lead of Salesman-and ne plus ultra diva Vanessa Redgrave, making her first Broadway appearance in fourteen years. Rounding out the cast are theatre/film whiz kids Robert Sean Leonard, Tony winner for The Invention of Love, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the director of off-Broadway’s Our Lady of 121st Street as well as an acclaimed actor.

O’Neill’s masterpiece, which runs a full four hours, takes its time gathering oomph: you can’t haul those family skeletons out of the closet all at once. In the opening scene, Dennehy and Redgrave saunter on stage, side by side, as the long-married, guilt-wracked couple James and Mary Tyrone. At this point in the play, after all, O’Neill’s dysfunctional family ‡ clef has merely completed the first meal of its very unhappy August day. Calm largely prevails. Still to come are revelations about the worsening tuberculosis of younger son Edmund (Leonard); the simmering jealousy and cynicism of underachieving older son Jamie (Hoffman); the relapse into addiction of mother Mary, who can’t stop raking through the mistakes of the past; and the self-loathing and miserliness of father James; plus a little Nietzsche-inflected pessimism; a lot of boozing; some recollections of suicide attempts; and a bout or two of despair over estrangement from the Catholic faith.

Fortunately for ticket buyers who just can’t stay away from such outsized torment-this reviewer recommends packing snacks for the two intermissions-the production soon shakes off the awkward gravitas of its opening. Gradually, the play gathers momentum; James, Jamie, and Edmund hit the bourbon and Mary her morphine; the actors seem to relax, and the Tyrones’ intensifying confrontations begin to speak of the psychological tortures we all craft for ourselves and our loved ones. In the Tyrones’ case, the torments operate almost exclusively through words, yet it is the physicality of the production that dwells in the mind: Redgrave nervously slicking back her graying hair at the nape of her neck, or rubbing her cheek against Dennehy’s forehead as they linger in an anguished embrace; Hoffman meticulously measuring glasses of water into a whiskey decanter, as his character tries to conceal his drinking from his eagle-eyed father; even the striking physical resemblance between the stocky Hoffman and the stocky Dennehy, reminding us that, on a more profound level, it is always the people most similar to us that threaten us most.

Around and behind the actors, the set created by scenic maestro Santo Loquasto (whose myriad credits include production design for Woody Allen films) adds an intriguing layer of metaphor. The set follows the exhaustive description of the Tyrone home that O’Neill wrote into his script-it’s modeled on Monte Cristo Cottage, his family’s summer residence in New London, Connecticut-but plays up the oppressive atmosphere with a mass of dark paneling that looms over the living room, extending up into the flies. It’s as though the Tyrones are living in the hollow base of a wooden mausoleum, with the heft above them symbolizing the weight of their aggrieved past, which they refuse to relinquish. The wooden bulwark also suggests a sort of distorted cathedral, its upper reaches filled with matter, instead of air-an impression reinforced by the prominence of the table that stands beneath it, serving as a focal point for the family wrangling, as if it were a sort of altar to their pain.

A lapsed Catholic, O’Neill wrote in a 1929 letter to the critic George Jean Nathan of the playwright’s need to “dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it-the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfying new one for the surviving primitive religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with.” Certainly, Journey is freighted with references to the fear and angst left in the wake of ebbing faith. “If only I could find the faith I lost, so I could pray again!” Mary exclaims-Redgrave drops melodramatically to her knees here-before heading off to her stash. Extrapolating from such lines and Loquasto’s expressive set, one can almost see the Tyrone family’s self-laceration as an unnerving parody of the Eucharist-with the wine/bourbon becoming more diluted as drink-sneaking characters try to maintain the level in the decanter, while Redgrave’s agitated mannerisms and distracted, gaily bitter delivery emphasize the fact that the increasingly strung-out Mary is a presence who is more absent with every passing moment.

What O’Neill depicts in Journey is a family’s homemade sacrament of refused absolution: because the Tyrones will not forgive each other, and will not even forgive themselves, for their past faults, they forge for themselves a miserable present. Because their torment is essentially cyclical-O’Neill leaves no doubt that the quarrels in Journey will erupt over and over again after act 4 closes-it makes a perfect match for the medium of theater, which repeats itself night after night, both different and the same. The Tyrones’ tears and blood are as real as the author’s. end

Published in the 2003-06-06 issue: 
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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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