Volume II, Issue II Summer 2003

O'Neill's great play shows family destroyed by miserly greed

Review by Lucy Komisar

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Written by Eugene O'Neill

Directed by Robert Falls

Plymouth Theatre
236 W. 45 St.
New York
Through August 31


Poverty can warp the spirit and the soul. And women are its prime victims. Those are the messages of Robert Falls' memorable and powerfully riveting production of Eugene O'Neil's "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

The miserable childhood of James Tyrone (Brian Dennehy), deserted by his father when he was ten and condemned to poverty with his five siblings, marked him for life, turned him into a rigid miser who feared the poorhouse and deprived his own family of generosity of feeling as well as of money.

And in the decades before and after the turn of the century, when this story and its scene-setting events occur, women were totally dependent on their husbands. So James's wife, Mary (Vanessa Redgrave), acts out above all a woman's tragedy. Swept off her youthful feet by the swashbuckling actor, she is condemned to a life of cheap hotels and second-class trains, with the Cape Cod house we see only in summer.

Long Day's Journey Into Night Mary is unbearably lonely, having stayed nowhere long enough to make friends. And she couldn't have kept them, because the other part of her woman's tragedy is tied to the addictive morphine an incompetent doctor gave her during the birth of her second child.

Dennehy and Redgrave play out stereotypical husband-wife roles. He is domineering, demanding, both stony-faced and sneering in his disrespect for her and their sons. She ripostes with sweet carping and desperate manipulation.

The result is a squabbling family eaten up by anger, jealousy, guilt and blame, by hidden furies that flit about the layers of truth and lies.

It is a tour de force of acting for everyone, yet Redgrave stands out. Usually, James the father seems the central character of the play, but with her quiet force of nature, with minute gestures and darting looks, Redgrave becomes the center of attention. Her eyes radiate distress and despair. She breathes nervously and drums on the table with shaking fingers. The play is most riveting when she is on stage, and one waits for her return when she is not there.

Dennehy to be sure is commanding with his piercing eyes and bitter demeanor. Robert Sean Leonard as Edmund, the tubercular younger son, is quietly naturalistic and compelling. And Philip Seymour Hoffman brings a dry cynicism to older son Jamie, the second-rate actor and boozer.

O'Neill turns the politics of greed into almost a caricature. James is in a fight with Standard Oil millionaire landowner. It turns out his own property is worth a quarter of a million dollars. However, an unintended joke gets close to a modern truth – as well as a universal one – and brings forth audience laughter when James proclaims that "Land is safer than the stocks and bonds of Wall Street swindlers!"

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