The tenderness between Gabriel Byrne, in the towering role of the fading Broadway actor James Tyrone, and Jessica Lange, as his beloved but tormented wife Mary, brings welcome relief from the overall misery of Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical masterwork, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” As staged by British director Jonathan Kent and acted by a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, the Roundabout Theater Company’s outstanding revival has a lighter tone and softer edges that, paradoxically, impart a deeper sorrow onto this classic domestic tragedy.
It is, indeed, a very long and harrowing day in the Tyrone household. The family is installed at Monte Cristo Cottage, their summer home by the ocean, a natural setting that designers Tom Pye (set), Natasha Katz (lighting) and especially Clive Goodwin (sound) have taken care to recreate in all its many moods. That means a warm sun flooding the dining room in the morning, turning to blistering heat by midday, then darkening skies in the afternoon giving way to a pounding, hissing surf, rolling fog and a foghorn that sounds its mournful warnings all through the night.
Mary Tyrone (Lange) has been doing well in the weeks since leaving the sanatorium where she periodically retreats to recover from the morphine addiction she acquired after a difficult childbirth. But her husband James (Byrne) and their two sons, James, Jr. (Shannon) and young Edmund (John Gallagher, Jr.) have noticed signs that she’s slipping back into her old habits. And she is very much aware of their constant scrutiny. “It makes it so much harder,” she says, “living in this atmosphere of constant suspicion.”
But on this dreadful day, who could blame her for longing to retreat into the arms of morphine? Edmund has an appointment with the family doctor today, and although no one’s admitting it, they all know he has consumption — a potentially fatal disease in 1912.
Jane Greenwood has designed a lovely daytime gown with lace mitts that Lange can twist and tug to indicate Mary’s growing anxiety over Edmund’s health. And Tom Watson has fashioned a beautiful wig with flyaway strands for her to fuss over. Yes, there’s a hint of the madwoman-in-the-attic trope, but this is no mannered performance.
Lange maintains close control over the mounting hysteria that will eventually send Mary literally up to the attic and into the past to relive every painful chapter of her history. She brings both grace and gravity to Mary’s futile efforts to deny reality — and a certain ravaged beauty to her comforting memories of a past that never was.
Byrne’s performance as James Tyrone, Sr., is quietly commanding. As the head of this theatrical household (James, Jr., is an actor and Edmund writes plays), he is grandly magisterial, shouting down charges that he’s a skinflint to his family and a poor-mouthed miser who only opens his wallet to buy property. But there’s pain in his eyes that darkens with every accusation, including the latest one that he’s sending Edmund to a cheap sanatorium. If this isn’t exactly guilt, call it dawning awareness. And there’s no denying his anguished tenderness toward Mary.
But Byrne is the only male in this theatrical family who sounds like an actor. He may have shrunken in stature over the years to an old ham, but when he slips into a Shakespearean role, he becomes a ham with real stage presence and a gorgeous voice.
Michael Shannon delivers a strong performance as Jamie, who needs to get stinking drunk (which he does, memorably, in Act II) to unburden his tormented soul to his younger brother. It probably sounds churlish to wish that his voice were less abrasive and more — if not Shakespearean, perhaps lyrical.
As Edmund, the focus of so much of the family angst on this terrible, terrible day, John Gallagher, Jr., is likely just miscast. But if someone is supposed to be playing a roaring, whoring, globe-trotting, self-destructive version of the playwright as a young man, you’d think he’d beef it up a bit.