Review: A Long, Dark Descent With O'Neill, Irons, Manville

June 27, 2018 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Long Day’s Journey Into Night," The Wallis, Beverly Hills, June 9 – July 1, 2018

In Brief: Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville star in this praiseworthy if not entirely successful revival of Eugene O'Neill's weighty masterpiece

At four acts and a running time of nearly three and one-half hours, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is meant to wear you down, so that you will surrender to the same profound, unrelenting despair that has consumed the lives of its four deeply flawed main characters.

Matthew Beard, Lesley Manville, Jeremy Irons, and Rory Keenan. (Photo: Lawrence K. Ho)

It’s Eugene O’Neill’s way of getting us to viscerally understand, to feel in our bones, not in our minds, the Tyrone family’s crippling pain that has come from years of alcoholism, drug addiction, failed ambition, and their numbing awareness that though they’ve tried, they have not been able to do anything about any of it.

The drama takes place in a single day in the summer of 1912. The parents, James, an actor, and Mary, a morphine addict, and their sons, the profligate Edmund and the youngest Jamie, who has tuberculosis, live in a fog of self-induced misery made worse by their brutally honest awareness of their condition.

Mary has returned from treatment for her illness. Her sons suspect that she hasn’t kicked the habit and is trying to conceal her continuing drug use. It also becomes clear that years of addiction have taken its toll, as she becomes more and more detached from reality with each passing act.

Edmund and James are worried about Jamie’s health while they wait for the results of his medical tests. We also learn that James once was a promising actor who took the easy way to fame by performing in a banal but popular play for most of his career, forgoing the demanding roles that would have defined him as a serious artist. He’s become bitter, stingy, and an alcoholic.

O’Neill slowly, methodically exposes the heartbreak of each family member, peeling back emotional layer after layer, to reveal their deepest fears and failings. The actors must approach the material in the same delicate, nuanced way. It’s up them to illuminate the author’s ruminations and transport us to the same level of agonizing torment that gnaws at his characters.

Only masterful performers can elevate a work this dense and daunting. Jeremy Irons as James and Lesley Manville as Mary very nearly succeed at creating a transcendent experience.

They’re both great actors. Irons, of course, has given fine performances in numerous films, television dramas, and on stage in the West End and on Broadway. Manville, a British stage and television stalwart, has become known only recently to American audiences for her Oscar-nominated role opposite Daniel Day Lewis in The Phantom Thread.

It’s an undeniable pleasure to watch them on stage at The Wallis. Yet for all their skill and formidable talents, they don’t quite mesmerize. Or maybe it’s Richard Eyre’s well-modulated but languid direction that fails to ignite.

Rob Howell’s set is impressive but perhaps for the wrong reasons. It combines period furnishings within a modern industrial framework, offering an overpowering view of the Connecticut sky shrouded in seaside fog and allowing the stage lighting to become ever more ominous as the Tyrones’ tragedy deepens. It’s indisputably theatrical, also obvious.

Ultimately, this thoughtful production – that comes to The Wallis by way of London and New York – is admirable if not transcendent. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a bit of a disappointment.

"Long Day's Journey Into Night," The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 746-4000, www.thewallis.org