The aptly named Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Drama for playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1957, is an in-depth look at an exhaustingly dysfunctional family over the course of one very long day. The Bristol Old Vic production, directed by Richard Eyre, opened this week at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California and features tour de force performances from Lesley Manville and Jeremy Irons.
Partially based on O’Neill’s own upbringing, the story unfolds in a cottage in seaside Connecticut. James Tyrone (Irons) is an aging actor who for many years thrived off of one signature role that he performed on tour. Now frustrated that he has been pigeonholed by being primarily known for that one part, preventing him from getting other opportunities as a classical actor, he unnecessarily pinches pennies wherever possible, investing all of his money in property and scolding his family when they leave too many lights on. His wife, Mary (Manville) has recently returned from inpatient treatment for morphine addiction, an issue that has plagued her since the untimely death of her second son and difficult birth of her third, Edmund (Matthew Beard). While Mary’s husband and sons have been optimistic, encouraged by her healthier appearance in recent weeks, they can no longer ignore evidence that she is using again, although she has an endless list of excuses to support her own deep denial. Meanwhile, Edmund is very ill. Mary insists it’s only a “summer cold,” but James and their oldest son, Jamie (Rory Keenan) strongly suspect he actually has tuberculosis. As for Jamie, he occupies his time drinking heavily and cavorting around town with many women. The cast is rounded out by Cathleen (Jessica Regan), the family’s maid.
Everything about the Tyrone family is toxic. They are simultaneously outspoken and lacking in self-awareness, and there are decades of simmering resentment related to a myriad of issues. In many ways, they enable each other. James admits it took him three years to notice Mary’s addiction due to turning a blind eye. The entire family drinks heavily, at all hours of the day, even giving alcohol to Edmund, who is quite visibly coughing up a lung and in extremely poor health. Everyone points a finger at James’s miserly nature for being a factor in both Edmund’s current illness, due to sending him to a questionable and cheap doctor, and Mary’s ongoing addiction, noting that he sent her to the cheapest treatment facility after an unhelpful series of doctors who misguidedly suggested her problem was as simple as mind over matter. Mary also resents James for making her live on the road for years during his touring career and now in this cottage she never wanted, that she insists has never felt like a home.
The set (Rob Howell), is stunning, although ultimately incongruous with mentions in the script of the cottage being unimpressive, run-down, and past its prime. Manville is hands down the best thing about this production. Her portrayal of someone teetering on the edge while trying to convince herself and everyone around her that is not the case is a skillful tightrope act. One of the greatest challenges of this play is in finding sympathy for its characters, who are by and large insufferable human beings, but Manville manages to make you feel for Mary, wondering as she does why her life had to turn out this way. Act one flies by, paced at a breakneck speed, helped by the intrigue as the full scope of the family’s problems are slowly revealed. But act two seems to slam on the brakes, with the action seemingly slowing to a crawl at times. This is partially due to the absence of Manville’s frantic energy in a large portion of the later scenes, as the action shifts more to the relationships between father and sons as well as between the two brothers.
Irons is also excellent, although by the time you truly get a notable glimpse into James’s psyche it is late in the evening, both literally and in the story. The most frustrating scene of the play occurs near the end when Jamie, the least interesting member of the family as written, returns home, wasted, and attempts to have a series of meaningful conversations with Edmund, who is miserable and to be relocated to a sanatorium on doctor’s orders in the very near future. It is only fitting, however, that Edmund is the more interesting character, as he is based on O’Neill himself, who in fact did go to a sanatorium for tuberculosis treatment, during which time he turned his attention to playwriting.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night, while a classic, is a test of patience, both in its interminable length and in the often unlikable nature of the characters. But those characters provide great vehicles for strong actors, and Manville in particular is giving a very fine performance—in fact, the play would benefit from more of it.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night runs at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through July 1st. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. The running time is 3 hours and 25 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here.