The secret is out: Hollywood for much of the past two decades has been hiding a great theater actress in Jessica Lange, and it has taken London's West End to allow her stage gifts to fully shine.

The secret is out: Hollywood for much of the past two decades has been hiding a great theater actress in Jessica Lange, and it has taken London’s West End to allow her stage gifts to fully shine.

Nearly four years ago, Lange returned, under Peter Hall’s direction, to her 1992 Broadway role as Blanche DuBois — without in any way recycling the earlier performance. That achievement can now be seen as mere preparation for her current and fearsome endeavor, Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone.

Do Blanche and Mary collectively make Lange the high priestess of pain? Apparently so, and why not: Whether collapsing in loneliness amid the fogbound house Mary will never call home, or transforming herself into the “mad ghost” referred to by husband James (Charles Dance), Lange laces into a marathon assignment with abandon, courage and genuine stage smarts. Indeed, the only real problem posed by her performance is what she could possibly do for an encore. Having inherited two of Jessica Tandy’s defining roles so far, why not make it a hat trick and have a go at Amanda Wingfield? She’s got the gift.

For now, let’s just be thankful that Lange’s affection for the stage is strong, and for a production from Robin Phillips (directing the play for the third time) that — for all its inconsistencies — knows how to show off its star. That’s not to suggest that this “Long Day’s Journey” is an exercise in vanity, however much this Mary’s doings suggest a seasoned narcissist; if anything, it’s the opposite.

Whereas the West End’s new “Caretaker” seemed content to let Michael Gambon get away with near-murder, the less experienced Lange gives an infinitely more disciplined performance. There hasn’t been a truer, less show-offy local display of distaff bravura since Judi Dench in “Amy’s View.”

Traditionally with this play, one talks first about its Tyrone, the miserly and ill-advisedly acquisitive thespian paterfamilias who presides — often drunkenly — over a dissolute older son, Jamie (Paul Rudd), and a consumptive younger one (Paul Nicholls), not to mention a wife wafting in and out of lucidity even as her mind is wrenched every which way in time. (So undervalued was the Mary in the 1986 Broadway revival, with Jack Lemmon, that co-star Bethel Leslie got a Tony nod in the supporting actress category.)

But it isn’t just Lange’s allure as a visiting film name, the latest of many to hit the London theater this year, that finds her dominating proceedings. There’s something decidedly stolid and — at first, anyway — underpowered about Dance’s robust, silver-haired Tyrone, no matter how much he paws his rattled wife in a liaison that, rather startlingly, still has a clear sexual component.

Dance catches the bitter comedy of a line like, “It’s you who are leaving us,” as he derides the doped-up Mary’s desire to keep her brood forever by her side. But his heavy-lidded demeanor flares into life only in the last of the play’s three acts, during which Mary is heard solely as a foot-heavy phantasm prior to her reappearance at the end. Acknowledging Tyrone’s ruin by the very play that made him (the part, of course, is a thinly veiled sketch of O’Neill’s own actor-father and his career treading the boards in “The Count of Monte Cristo”), Dance eventually reaches the depths of the self-acknowledged hack. “It’s a late day for regrets,” says Tyrone, but Dance does in the end arrive there while nonetheless leaving one in mind of a male lead less prone to the slow burn.

The two Tyrone sons allowed for an indelible double-act back in 1986 from Peter Gallagher (Edmund) and Kevin Spacey (Jamie) in the Jonathan Miller staging that flopped on Broadway before storming London. The present go-round’s pair of Pauls, Rudd and Nicholls, have yet to scorch the stage.

A bearded Rudd, looking heftier than usual, has a rather persistently contempo presence as the gambling cynic Jamie. Nicholls, a British soap opera actor who has impressed before onstage, could dispense with a feeble cough that mars an otherwise fiercely committed rendering of the playwright’s alter ego, Edmund — the Baudelaire-quoting man of feeling who is “a little in love with death.” Like Dance, both boys come into their own in the shared third-act face-off that remains a lastingly honest and brutal assessment of sibling unrest. “I love you more than I hate you,” confesses Jamie, here seen alternately cradling and strangling Edmund. And Rudd pierces the psychic chaos behind Jamie’s avuncular “hi, kid” hail-fellow-well-met rhetoric.

If “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” can be encapsulated at all — Richard Eyre has described it as “the saddest play ever written” — it’s as the seminal commingling of hatred and love. Rudd and Nicholls exactly capture that familial flashpoint, with Jamie on this occasion doing a neat post-confessional jig while awaiting absolution from his hyperventilating aesthete-brother.

Maybe all three men are at their best late on because they no longer have to compete with Lange, who, among other accomplishments, gives the lie to the conception that Hollywood stars soft-pedal their stage personae.

At first, you notice the hands, quietly and unfussily in constant motion and composed of fingers that, says Mary, surveying her body as if it were the enemy, are “ugly … maimed and crippled.” How does this square with the great beauty that was Mary whom James boasts of (and Lange still is)? It’s in tune with her morphine-fueled perceptions that Mary’s sense of her flesh should be as fraught as her aggrieved mind.

As Lange communicates the role, Mary is living a double lie — concerned for her family, Edmund especially, yet a solipsist in matters of the self; anxious for the future and yet forever seduced back into the past. “I’m not (bitter),” she proclaims late in act two, her protestation fair game for someone both victimizer as well as victim.

Much talked-about in that final act, Mary finally retakes her position amid Simon Higlett’s beautiful dreamscape of a set, the blue-gray walls as liquefied and evanescent (there’s a pictureless frame) as its heroine’s shattered psyche. “The mad scene, enter Ophelia,” cracks Jamie, while an increasingly sickly Edmund crawls across the floor in front of his mother.

But Mary has forsaken the here and now as if succumbing to the encroaching New England fog, her shriek at Edmund’s report of his consumption quickly snuffed out. “I was so happy … for a time,” she says dreamily in one of dramatic literature’s most celebrated final lines. And so “Long Day’s” at last closes, as it must, cathartically, borne aloft by a performance one will remember for all time.

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Lyric Theater, London; 916 seats; £35 ($50) top

Production

A Bill Kenwright presentation of the Eugene O'Neill play in three acts. Directed by Robin Phillips.

Creative

Sets and costumes; Simon Higlett; lighting, Paul Pyant; sound, Matt McKenzie. Opened, reviewed Nov. 21, 2000. Running time: 3 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

James Tyrone - Charles Dance Mary Tyrone - Jessica Lange James Tyrone Jr. (Jamie) - Paul Rudd Edmund Tyrone - Paul Nicholls Cathleen - Olivia Colman

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