It’s a truism that Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night is long and repetitious, so it comes as a surprise that Richard Eyre’s production plays so grippingly that it's never a slog. Eyre makes it clear that the Tyrones, the family at its center (based O’Neill’s own), are deeply dysfunctional, but each repetition at the BAM Harvey Theater rings true, and many of them prove comical. Each character knows the others’ strengths and frailties. Yet although they claw at one another often, there’s pulsing love in this family.
The crucial role in any production is Mary, the morphine-addicted mother who has taken a cure but falls off the wagon. Luckily, Eyre has cast Lesley Manville, recognizable from her recent Oscar-nominated performance in Phantom Thread. She is superb, from her pitch-perfect American accent to the way she veers from worry to delight, to petulance, to any other emotion you’d care to name.
The play draws heavily on O’Neill’s own family, and Eyre has added smart business from the get-go. In the first scene, Jeremy Irons, as the patriarch James Tyrone, a retired barnstorming actor, is seen winding up string and folding brown paper from a package he has carefully unwrapped; it’s a visual preparation for the penury he is shortly to be accused of.
The Tyrones are a family always at odds, raging, fuming or insulting one another. “I’m not blaming you, dear,” Mary says to her son Edmund (Matthew Beard) after everyone has been avoiding the topic of her past addiction and the lack of trust it has engendered. “How can you help it? How can any one of us forget? That’s what makes it so hard—for all of us. We can’t forget.” But Mary tries to act normal, fussing with her hair, complaining about the servants and the house, and about having no friends. Manville avoids easy neuroticism and imbues her with a yearning for normalcy.
Part of that comes into relief when Mary harps on the fact that she has never liked the summer house James had built for them in Connecticut: “I’ve never felt it was my home. It was wrong from the start.” In Rob Howell’s non-realistic design, it has translucent walls and ceiling that reflect the actors; their characters can’t escape from themselves. But James doesn’t share the feeling: he later says, “She’s been so well in the two months since she came home … This home has been a home to me again.” It has not been a home to her, but it was to him. They’re two people in love, but they’re on different tracks. And even the compliments are backhanded. “Don’t blame your father,” Mary tells Edmund. “His people were the most ignorant kind.” But she loves James all the same.
As the family unpacks its woes—Jamie’s drunkenness, Edmund’s illness, James’s stinginess, Mary’s addiction—there is plenty of blame to go around, but Eyre shades each round of complaint with subtlety.
Take Mary’s vexation about the dirty hotels she endured during their marriage, when James was on tour with a play that he had made a great success of (as O’Neill’s own father, James, had done with the 1882 play The Count of Monte Cristo). The memory of “one-night stands in cheap hotels,” where she waited alone for the show to be over while James was out carousing, where she bore both children, eats at her. Yet the same complaint can be a crushing memory or a comic carping to her maid (Jessica Regan) in Manville’s multi-layered performance.
There is unusual physical affection to enhance the familial feel—Mary hugs Edmund frequently, but James hugs Mary, gives her a playful slap on the arm, and, at one point, drags her to a rocking chair and pulls her onto his knee. In Irons’ hands, James has less of the tyrant in him than he often does. He has a bit of business with watered-down whisky that becomes a show of forbearance rather than something darker, and when James recalls a bit of praise he received from Edwin Booth for his Othello, Irons makes that nostalgic moment deeply touching.
There are some quibbles. Although Irons is striking as a former matinee idol (O’Neill says of him: “He has never been really sick a day in his life”), at times he speaks too quickly and words go by unrecognized. And while Rory Keenan’s Jamie matches Manville’s excellent accent, the others falter in sounding American.
At more than three hours, Long Day’s Journey requires a commitment of time, but this production induces a warmth and affection toward its characters, especially Manville’s Mary, that promise a memorable experience.
The Bristol Old Vic production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St., Brooklyn) through May 27. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available by calling (718) 636-4100 or visiting bam.org.