American Tragedy: Jessica Lange Is a Powerhouse in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Jessica Lange

Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Roundabout Theatre
227 W. 42nd Street

Jessica Lange is a great actress because she doesn’t play the words but the actions and the emotions in a text, and this makes her an ideal fit for Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night, maybe the best play written by an American, in tears and blood, in the twentieth century. Lange played Mary on the London stage in 2000 to positive response. In this new production for the Roundabout Theatre she seems to draw lifeblood and creative inspiration from the grueling repetitiveness of the writing and from the ceaseless way that the drug-addicted Mary is borne back into the past.

The impressive and even fearsome thing about Lange’s talent is that she hits jagged peaks of emotion on a near-constant basis whereas most actors would struggle to reach even one of these peaks in the course of a performance. Watching Lange play Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is like watching waves at the beach continually coming in and gathering force until they get enormous and then land and crash all over the place on the shore, over and over and over again. Lange’s sensibility is romantic and very pessimistic, and this matches up exactly with O’Neill’s sensibility.

Mary Tyrone, the mother of the Tyrone family, is highly strung and a nervous wreck, and no actress has ever been higher strung in this role than Lange, who physicalizes Mary’s agony in a poetic and dance-like fashion throughout the entirety of the four-hour drama. If you didn’t know any English you could still watch this performance and make exact sense of it because of the way Lange twists and turns her body and Mary’s ruined hands and begs for respite for her character.

There is no question of stamina here: Lange seems like she could go on being Mary all day and all night because she understands that Mary herself never gets a moment when she isn’t Mary, when she might find some relief. Almost all actresses playing Mary choose to settle down and blur their behavior once she starts going upstairs to shoot up morphine, but Lange doesn’t do that at all. Instead, daringly, she makes us see that Mary is so far gone that even the drug she craves doesn’t do much to calm her down.

Jessica Lange

Many actresses make the mistake of playing Mary’s harsh words for her husband James (Gabriel Byrne) and her sons Jamie (Michael Shannon) and Edmund (John Gallagher, Jr.) as deliberate and sadistic needling, but Lange knows that Mary has absolutely no choice about the words of recrimination that keep coming out of her mouth. Lange’s Mary is a woman who is utterly trapped and alone in her own hell, and it seems appropriate that Lange’s most memorable moment here is a purely physical one.

Mary, who was educated in a convent, gets halfway down on her knees to try to pray again to the Blessed Virgin Mary. But then— with shocking swiftness—she falls down to the floor with a decisive thud, and Lange makes it look like Mary has been struck down by God or even the Blessed Virgin herself for having the effrontery to try to get back in touch after such a long absence. The way Lange falls so hard to the floor like this is a moment in the theater that I will never forget.

The roles of Mary and Jamie are the lengthiest and most challenging here, the pay-off roles, and Shannon gives a mean-minded, rough-and-ready, Steppenwolf Theatre-style performance as Jamie, using the low notes in his voice so that he sometimes sounds like the definitive originator of this role, Jason Robards, Jr., but putting his own menacingly physical stamp on it. Shannon uses his tallness as a weapon against the other family members, towering over them to intimidate them, and this brings out how much director Jonathan Kent has made this Long Day’s Journey Into Night into a real physical and verbal battle royale, active and muscular, a blood sport where everyone is a gladiator in the arena, which is as it should be. These Tyrones interrupt each other and overlap dialogue and try to shout each other down, and they only listen to some of what the others say because if they took in everything that was being said then they wouldn’t be able to go on living.

Byrne plays his tightwad ham patriarch as a rather seedy fellow with somewhat limited emotions to match his grandstanding, though he does make a case for his character when James talks about how he might have been a great actor, delivering this monologue straight out to the audience as if it were a musical number. Edmund has traditionally been the toughest, least rewarding part here, and Gallagher, Jr. solves a lot of the problems with it by playing him as a kind of mini-Jamie, much more lusty and sarcastic than I’ve ever seen Edmund played before.

This Long Day’s Journey moves like a speeding freight train until Lange delivers Mary’s last monologue down stage and straight out to the audience. She uses her most girlishly high voice as Mary talks about wanting to become a nun and then details what she feels is a crucial turning point in her young life. Lange takes the briefest pause before coming to the famous curtain line and shifts into her lowest, most unforgiving tone to say, “I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” She says this fairly fast all on one breath, and she gets a whole lifetime of regret into this one climactic line.

Never before have I felt that Mary truly should not have married James, but Lange made me feel exactly why she shouldn’t have, and in reaching that point she works a catharsis. Lange makes us see that Mary is trying desperately hard throughout the long day into the night to discover why her life has turned out so badly when she started it with such promise, and in this last line she seems to have finally worked it out, almost like a math theorem. Sometimes in life the only relief is in seeing your choices with clarity, and at least Lange’s Mary reaches that point before going back to square one at the dawn of yet another punishing day.

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