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Theatre in Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night (Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Matthew Beard, Lesley Manville, Jeremy Irons, Rory Keenan. Photo: Richard Termine.

It's fascinating to consider how many ways there are to play Mary Tyrone, the spiritually poisoned, and poisonous, matriarch of Eugene O'Neill's family tragedy. Constance Cummings -- admittedly recalled through the mists of memory -- in a 1973 television production, was ghostly, an appearance of ectoplasm sending shivers through the room. Colleen Dewhurst's Mary was possessed of a demonic rage hidden behind a frozen smile, and ready to wield guilt like a club. Vanessa Redgrave turned her into a pillar of rectitude, pretending to be stunned that anyone might possibly question her behavior. Jessica Lange played her as a secret voluptuary, sinking into a morphine haze like a child wrapping herself in her favorite blanket. At BAM, in this production from the Bristol Old Vic, Lesley Manville delivers a Mary created out of raw nerve endings, sliding into panic.

The panic is justified by a close reading of the text. Mary, you will remember, is a morphine addict. She has just returned from the latest of many "cures," none of which have taken, and hopes are high among her loved ones that this time will be the charm. ("You're a fine armful now, Mary, with those twenty pounds you've gained," says her husband, James, an actor onstage and off.) At least, that's how the family handles her; in truth, they are keeping tabs on her like a trio of prison wardens. Acknowledging their stares, she wonders innocently if something is wrong with her appearance, but their obvious distrust scalds her -- all the more because they are correct. Indeed, Mary is using again, and, as the play begins, it is just after breakfast and Mary needs to get upstairs, where she has hidden her stash. Repeatedly, she heads for the stairs, only to be thwarted by someone or something. (As she later says, a user returning to the habit must relearn how to calibrate the dosage to get the required effect. Clearly, Mary is in dire need of a booster.) Watching Manville approach the stairs again and again, nervously patting her hair and trying to keep up a cheerful line of conversation while trying to ignore that she is under constant scrutiny, one has the impression of a bird frantically beating its wings against the bars of a too-small cage.

Thanks to O'Neill's precise charting of the Tyrones' treacherous emotional terrain, we grasp the underlying causes of Mary's anxiety. There are simply too many unacceptable truths in the room: the dissipation of her elder son, Jamie; the grave illness -- consumption -- of her younger son, Edmund; and the fact that she is living a lie. "Stop suspecting me!" she implores Edmund, grabbing him in a grip that smacks more of desperation than maternal affection.

And yet, when she gets her fix, the morphine doesn't silence her. If anything, it loosens her tongue, lending her a macabre gaiety and freeing her to lacerate the others with her rosy memories of a sheltered childhood and convent education. It also unleashes her darker accounts of an uncountable number of nights spent in dirty, second-rate hotels, eaten up with loneliness while James caroused, closing the bars with his colleagues; of the child she left behind to tour with James, and for whose death she alternately blames herself and Jamie; and of the painful birth of Edmund, overseen by a hotel quack, who was hired by her skinflint husband and who recklessly got her hooked on the needle. Indeed, Manville's Mary simply can't stop rattling on, first, as if words are enough to keep the truth at bay, and later, to cauterize the souls of the men she claims to love. It's no wonder that, time and again, the director, Richard Eyre, places Mary in isolation with the others looking on; she is a figure to inspire horror and despair.

Jeremy Irons' equally fine James is, in every respect, a matinee idol gone to seed. His weathered good looks fully justify Mary's memory of his "reputation of being one of the best-looking men in the country." His stage persona has bled into his daily life: It's there when he plants his feet in a firm stance and raises his hand in a dramatic gesture, when he raps his knuckles to emphasize a point, and when, pressed into lending Edmund a little walking-around money, he gingerly opens his wallet and stares into it as if pondering a yawning abyss.

Offsetting these gestures is a bone-deep weariness over his family's sordid wranglings; at times, he explodes in frustration, his body shaking and his monumental voice crumbling into gravel. And yet, when making a whiskey-fueled, wee-hours admission to Edmund about how he destroyed his talent with a lucrative star vehicle that became a long-running creative straitjacket while earning him a fortune, his delivery is simple, unadorned by oratory and ending in a what-can-you-do gesture that suggests it was all written in the stars.

If Eyre has guided Manville and Irons into giving performances that surely must rank among their best, he hasn't done as well by the younger generation of Tyrones. (Jessica Regan is thoroughly apt as the cheeky, opinionated maid, Cathleen.) Matthew Beard's beanpole frame, aided by a racking cough, leaves no doubt about the severity of his consumption. He also manages to make Edmund's speech about the lure of the sea seem freshly imagined, not the self-conscious set piece that it is. Still, he remains a strangely uncompelling figure -- no matter what James says, this Edmund is entirely without a touch of the poet -- and he often rushes through his lines. Rory Keenan has his moments as Jamie -- note the little buck-and-wing he executes following a well-earned shot of whiskey -- and he has a solid grasp of the character's smart-aleck ways. Arguably, too much so: Jamie's cynicism is a pose that masks deep fury and self-loathing, something the actor often fails to convey, most crucially when warning Edmund of his plan to drag him into his stew of corruption. Actors ranging from Kevin Spacey to Philip Seymour Hoffman to Michael Shannon have generated a dark electricity in this scene; Keenan largely falls flat.

The production's design may prove controversial, as well. In place of the rather dowdy summer cottage specified by O'Neill, the action unfolds in a vast solarium, backed by a turbulently painted sky drop that suggests a seascape by Edvard Munch. (Interestingly, the upstage floor is painted in bands of the same colors, as if the sea and sky are creeping into the house.) It is certainly an attention-grabbing look, but it is rather too grand a residence for that notorious penny-pincher, James Tyrone. It certainly weakens Mary's argument that she has never had a decent home. It does at least provide a showcase for Peter Mumford's sensitive lighting, in which daylight fades into a gunmetal gray fog and, later, a darkness illuminated by a single table lamp. Rob Howell's costumes are fine and John Leonard's sound design provides all the expected effects, including surf, seagulls, and the foghorn that keeps Mary up at night.

This is not the most accomplished production of Long Day's Journey Into Night to come our way in recent years, but anyone who loves this piece -- one of American drama's very few masterpieces -- will be fascinated by the way Manville and Irons inhabit their characters' darkest corners. You aren't likely to soon forget the sight of Manville, desolate, crying out, "Mother of God, why am I so lonely?" -- David Barbour

(14 May 2018)

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