“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.” So says Mary Tyrone, the matriarch at the heart of Eugene O’Neill’s epic family drama Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
It’s an apropos assessment of how the past seeps into all our lives, coloring our present and future on a scale both large and small. But it’s also a fitting epigraph for the history and reach of Long Day’s Journey Into Night itself – it’s a play that can’t help be tinged by all its past productions, the Tyrone families of years gone-by casting a shadow onto all who come after. It’s particularly tricky when Jessica Lange’s Tony-winning take on Mary Tyrone, surrounded by an electrifying cast, looms so large in recent memory.
It’s this that inevitably makes the production of the classic currently playing at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, California by way of the Bristol Old Vic in the U.K. fall short of expectations. Though Long Day’s Journey is in essence a four-hander between the immediate members of the Tyrone family (with a brief assist from maid Cathleen), the play typically belongs to Mary Tyrone, the play’s morphine-addicted matriarch and emotional center.
Here, that is not the case. Lesley Manville is an actress of impeccable credentials and immense talent, but the role is not a good fit for her. This is partly due to Richard Eyre’s directorial and design choices which prevent Mary’s journey from packing the harrowing punch it requires. Manville’s own natural strength and inner steel are also an obstacle, tamping down the inner pain and visceral vulnerability the role demands. Manville is luminous in the play’s opening scene, a beautiful bundle of nerves on the verge of something more dangerous. However, she never pushes past that, remaining all too put together throughout. Even in the play’s final moments, when she is far in the grips of her morphine use, her hair and dress are nearly pristine. Her addled imaginings feel more like sane reflections than hysterical wanderings into the past.
In contrast, Jeremy Irons as once-great matinee idol James Tyrone delivers a singular performance of stunning ferocity and wounded pride. His past failures and guilt emanate from each word, and his presence is so compelling that it’s impossible to take your eyes off him at any moment he’s onstage. When he delivers a Shakespearean monologue mid-way through the second act, you see with startling clarity both the fantastic star Tyrone must have once been and the once-great man gone to seed. As he descends further into his cups with a blend of drunken resignation and regret, he offers a firmly human and heartbreaking take on one of classical theatre’s most selfish of men.
Irons once famously voiced the evil Scar in The Lion King, but a lion is an apt comparison for the man in general – his distinctive, commanding voice and lithe, prowling form lend him an undeniable stage presence with the grace and menace of a large cat. He is a giant of his craft and James Tyrone offers him the blueprint for a tour-de-force performance that he seizes and exceeds with each moment he exists onstage. When he is missing from the action, you find yourself longing for his return.
The same cannot be said for Matthew Beard and Rory Keenan as the Tyrone sons, Edmund and Jamie. The two feel almost as if they’ve wandered in from a musical comedy, so out-of-step are their performances with the tone of the proceedings. While Beard expertly conveys Edmund’s worsening illness, he lacks the poetic soul essential to the role, making Edmund an energetic figure who stiltedly monologues off-the-cuff rather than the more thoughtful, moribund boy of the text. Keenan offers a Jamie Tyrone in caricature, channeling the role’s simmering rage into an over-the-top portrayal that makes the brothers’ final face-off feel more like farce than the calamitous exposure of live-wire wounds.
It must also be noted that Peter Mumford’s lighting design is distractingly dark. The title is a fair description of the play’s three-hour-plus slog from day into night, and James Tyrone is miserly about his electricity bill, but Mumford leans too heavily on the literal sense of darkness and night. It is frustratingly difficult to make out the nuances of the actor’s performances at times as they are so enshrouded in shadow.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play about addiction in a myriad of forms and the havoc it wrecks on families — here, the palpable sense of peril and notion that things could spiral utterly out of control into abject tragedy at any moment is sorely missing. The pain and resentments that seep to the surface fueled by alcohol and grief at Mary’s return to her morphine use still emerge, but excepting the admissions from Jeremy Irons’ James Tyrone, they don’t pack the punch they should. The production is more plodding than harrowing and by the time you reach the finale’s brotherly battle of biblical proportions and Mary’s Shakespearean mad scene, you’re left feeling more hollow than emotionally devastated. The production is still worth a visit, if only to see Irons continue to prove why he’s one of the most respected actors of his generation – but with its starry cast, it’s not the memorable take on a classic it should be given the talent involved. B