Eugene O’Neill’s brooding masterpiece about the pain of forgiving, and the impossibility of forgetting, arrives just in time to assuage memories of a Broadway season offering up rather too much that necessitated both. Blurred by the haze of distance already, the season’s disappointments seem a small price to pay for this last, exemplary production.
Perhaps most impressively, Robert Falls’ staging of this great American play — probably the greatest of American plays — isn’t merely a fastidious re-creation of the traditionally mournful, fog-enshrouded presentation, either. Here the mist is often dispelled by the roiling currents of emotion running between characters incarnated with such vivid empathy that whole sections of the play burn with unexpected conviction.
The director’s superlative cast seems to find new realms of feeling in a play seemingly plumbed to its depths in the nearly 50 years since its Broadway premiere. It remains a devastatingly sad examination of a family damaged beyond repair both by life and by each other. But there is warmth here, too, in a portrait of four isolated individuals drawn together by the depth of suffering that sets them apart from the world. The play’s pain also is tempered by the pleasure to be found in witnessing a quartet of great actors meet the immense challenges of these roles with such boldness, authority and imagination.
Vanessa Redgrave’s Mary Tyrone is the primary revelation of the evening — and the season. This celebrated stage actress is noted for her intellectual curiosity and thoroughness, and they pay off here in a portrayal that is complex but never calculated, as rewarding as it is risky. The risk comes in Redgrave’s decision to sharply delineate the cruelties that underpin the pathos of O’Neill’s morphine- and memory-addicted matriarch, as well as the ravages her disease has visited upon her, both physically and psychologically.
The physical aspects of the performance are perhaps the first to capture our attention: Her spectral presence — Mary’s assertion that she’s getting fat has never seemed so ghoulishly deluded — is enhanced by hands visibly deformed by arthritis, forever struggling to put a stray hair in place. As Mary’s anxious need for another dose of morphine begins to steal upon her, the gnarled hands pick nervously at the table or, in a moment of searing poignance, clatter across an imaginary piano.
Then, suddenly, the frailty wrapped in ethereal femininity evaporates, and Mary erupts into startling bursts of emotional — even physical — violence. This is a woman truly in the grip of addiction, whose personality has disintegrated under its influence, shattered into a thousand disconnected impulses that she can no longer control. Just as quickly, Mary’s rage will dissolve into confused contrition. At other times, she will move from flirtation to maternal warmth to snobbery to vindictiveness in the course of a single speech. It’s a wondrous, mesmerizing performance, brave in its hairpin turns from one extreme to another.
Mary is the pivotal character in the play, and Redgrave’s multifaceted emotionalism is refracted and reflected in subtle ways in the evening’s other performances. The stark contrasts between this family’s loving instincts and its seething resentments is described in bold strokes here, on a handsome, subtly toned set by Santo Loquasto that sets them in strong relief. (It is lit with matchless sensitivity to the play’s emotional dynamics by Brian MacDevitt.) They begin the play clustered warmly around the breakfast table, natural in their intimacy, but soon they stray into their own private spaces, scratching at each other’s sores from a wary distance.
These Tyrones drive each other away with wounding words, then rush to repair the damage they’ve inflicted with a desperate caress. We are always aware of the characters’ conflicting impulses — denial and confession, love and hate, resentment and forgiveness. It takes physical form: They seem to be always coming together or moving apart. Just after they have viciously squabbled over signs that Mary is succumbing to her addiction again, Brian Dennehy’s James gallantly offers his wife his arm to take her in to lunch, and she gratefully takes it. And when Edmund, driven to despair as he watches his mother recede into a drug-induced fog of evasion, hurls the contemptuous words “dope fiend” at her, he next flings himself at her feet, wrapping himself about her legs in abject misery.
Dennehy’s James Tyrone is distinguished by its intelligent understatement — there is little of the hollow ham in his warm, compassionate reading of this character. James’ love for Mary has a potent sexual warmth, too — enfolding her in his arms after an outburst, he traces the contours of her face as if still bewitched by the young girl he married, the girl he insisted join him on the road, setting in motion the unforeseen chain of events that would destroy the family. But this ardent affection’s flip side is a seething anger to match Mary’s, one that she cannot resist drawing out of him when she is tormented by her own failings. We see clearly here how Mary shares with Jamie a need to find company in her abasement.
Indeed, the revelations of Falls’ expansive production (it’s a full four hours) often have to do with surprising correspondences between characters that reveal how deeply their wounded psyches are intertwined. Mary usually is allied with her beloved Edmund, played here with still, exhausted equilibrium by Robert Sean Leonard, and not with the bitter Jamie, whom she keeps at a distance. But Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Jamie is his mother’s son in at least one way: The unusual, placating softness Hoffman brings to Jamie in the play’s first two acts is exploded in the last, when he becomes a raging beast under the influence of whiskey, as incapable of controlling his emotions under the influence as Mary is.
A further revelation is how Jamie’s deep resentment of his skin-flint father is inflected by the uncanny physical likeness between Dennehy and Hoffman. As they face off tensely against each other in act one, the resemblance brings a new poignance to their antagonism. Jamie’s half-hearted attacks seem softened by an innate identification with a man he so plainly resembles. They’re like two warring souls destined to share the same skin.
Leonard’s doomed, consumptive Edmund, beautifully restrained and eloquent in his sympathetic silences, is always somehow set apart, the “stranger who never feels at home”; he’s the family’s diseased conscience, and is thus cherished and resented in equal measures. Only Edmund doesn’t need to justify or excuse his failings, or blame them on others, because he sees in the family’s sufferings not just weakness and folly but the universal condition of man. His anguish comes from the knowledge that it can only be transcended in those moments of escape he describes, when, at sea on a ship, “drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it … for a moment I lost myself — actually lost my life.”
That release from “what life has done to us,” as Mary puts it, is what all the Tyrones seek, in a bottle or a syringe. It is what the young Eugene O’Neill, haunted by the ghosts he would only lay to rest in this play, learned to find in the less destructive opiate of art. And it is what art, at its best, provides its audiences, too. To watch this great play performed with such compassion and intelligence is to feel the doors that enclose us in our own experience unlocking, to give us a glimpse of that realm Edmund rhapsodizes about, where “the veil of things as they seem (is) drawn back by an unseen hand,” and, “for a second, there is meaning!”