The prospect of Jessica Lange starring in Long Day’s Journey Into Night has tantalized New York theatergoers ever since she played the role of Mary Tyrone in London 16 years ago. Now it’s a reality. This spring, the Oscar-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe-winning actress will return to Broadway alongside Tony nominee Gabriel Byrne, Oscar nominee Michael Shannon and Tony winner John Gallagher, Jr. in Eugene O’Neill’s great American classic.
From the troubled Hollywood star Frances Farmer in the 1982 movie Frances to Blanche du Bois in the 1992 Broadway revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, the incandescent actress has given memorable performances playing women teetering on edge of sanity. This time she takes on the role of the morphine-addicted matriarch in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of O’Neill’s semiautobiographical family drama, which begins previews at the American Airlines Theatre April 3. The production, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company in association with television producer Ryan Murphy, is directed by Jonathan Kent.
“Jessica has the capacity for great fragility and strength, which is a wonderful combination,” says the British director, whose previous Broadway productions include Medea with Diana Rigg and Hamlet with Ralph Fiennes. He says the 66-year-old actress told him that she feels she is now the right age to play the role of Mary Tyrone. Kent didn’t direct her in the West End production of the O’Neill play but says, “Jessica always felt that it was a part that she would like to explore further. I think it’s mad nowadays, to feel that once an actor has played a role, that’s it.” He adds, “If you were a pianist, you wouldn’t be asked to play a piano sonata once. You know, John Gielgud played Hamlet something like six times in different productions. These parts are so vast, they are almost impossible to achieve once.”
In a foreword to the 2014 Yale University edition of the O’Neill text, Lange described the role as a “bottomless well” that is “impossible to exhaust.” She wrote, “Actors can fall in love with characters they play, obsess over them, cling to them . . . sometimes we’re haunted by them.”
“Roundabout has never taken on Long Day’s Journey before, but when the prospect of doing it with the glorious Jessica Lange came to us, it was impossible to resist,” says Haimes. “I approached Jonathan [Kent] for this production because I have seen how beautifully he can handle the pressure of tackling a play that is certainly considered a classic, if not a masterpiece,” he adds. “It’s not a task for the faint of heart, and I know Jonathan is more than up to the challenge.”
There have been many notable Broadway revivals of O’Neill’s powerful drama since its 1956 premiere in New York. The most recent, in 2003, starred Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehy. “I think when you talk about landmark productions, what you usually mean is landmark performances,” notes Kent. “And quite rightly, because I think it would be foolish for a director to try to imprint himself on the production too much. Of course, there are choices made, but subtlety is the watchword.”
“The play exists between and among the four actors on stage, which is one the reasons why, I think, the play inevitably shifts through the prism of their particular personalities,” the director continues. Accordingly, Kent has assembled a stellar group of lead actors to play alongside Lange in his production: Byrne as Mary’s husband, the tightfisted actor-manager James Tyrone; Shannon as Jamie, the cynical, hard-drinking eldest son; and Gallagher as younger brother Edmund, the tubercular poet (and stand-in for the playwright). “The quartet is incredibly exciting,” Kent adds. “I will say to them it is their responsibility is to be as naked, as deep and as pitiless on themselves as O’Neill was when he wrote it.” (There is also a fifth character — the maid, Cathleen, who will be played by Colby Minifie.)
On the night depicted in the play, the men in the Tyrone family, filled with booze and recriminations, are keeping vigil over Mary Tyrone; the matriarch has slipped back into morphine abuse — the poison a quack doctor prescribed as a painkiller after she experienced a difficult childbirth many years before. All four members of the family, Kent notes, are “yoked and linked, not just by their addiction to drugs and to drink, but to each other. They are driven by need and love at the same time as being destructive. The collateral damage of their love is terrible. It is a great American tragedy and, like all tragedies, it is harrowing but it is somehow redemptive.”
O’Neill completed Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1942 and, three years later, delivered a sealed copy of the manuscript to his publisher with instructions that it stay under wraps for 25 years, until after his death. He also stipulated that, even after publication, it should never be produced as a play. In the years that followed, the playwright experienced both a decline in health and in reputation; his two subsequent plays were failures when first presented — The Iceman Cometh in 1946 and A Moon for the Misbegotten in 1947. By the time he died in 1953, O’Neill felt he had been rejected by the theater community and by his audience. Three years later, his wife, Carlotta, to whom O’Neill had given sole control of his estate, released the play for publication and public performance. Controversial as it was, that decision guaranteed her late husband’s place as America’s preeminent playwright. O’Neill received a posthumous Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 1957.
Kent observes that with this monumental work, O’Neill created the archetypal American family drama, while acknowledging its antecedents in classical Greek drama. “These four people are trapped in a single space — trapped in this endless cycle, which lasts, as we watch, for 24 hours, but it will repeat the next day and the day after that; they are in a circle of some kind of hell. The only person who escapes is Edmund because he becomes Eugene O’Neill and writes a play about them. Ironically, by escaping them and then writing about them, he preserves them — and himself — for all time. His exorcism is also his doom.”
Photos from left to right: Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr.
Photos by Frank Ockenfels, Hannah Beth King, Lauren Weissler and Jason Goodrich
Illustration by Sam Spratt