Apparently, Jessica Lange had a path in mind. You might call it the Tandy Trajectory: that sequence of classic American roles, all memorably played by Jessica Tandy, from Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire to Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie to Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. But Lange, despite her 1992 Streetcar and 2005 Menagerie on Broadway, and her London Long Day’s Journey in 2000, did not seem a likely candidate to complete the trifecta here. Her Blanche and Amanda had been underpowered: finely shaded but barely perceptible ten rows past the proscenium. An explosive performer onscreen, Lange onstage seemed rather to implode, a trait that would be especially disastrous for the drug addict Mary in O’Neill’s autobiographical howl of sadness. A Mary not fighting her family (and herself) with everything in her arsenal would all but dissolve in the play’s famous fogs.
But something highly unexpected happened in the 11 years since Lange was last seen in New York: Her voice opened up, not just in volume but in range and color. Either that or sound technology has improved to the point that it can now make a symphony from a lone instrument. In any case, the change has allowed Lange to harness her interpretive gifts and triumph in a new Long Day’s Journey, directed by Jonathan Kent for the Roundabout. Her Mary has a broader emotional palette than any I’ve seen, including that of Vanessa Redgrave, who made her Mary a harrowing wraith dying from the play’s first words. Lange situates the character more as O’Neill depicts her: at the beginning of a relapse, not at the end. She is still a coquette, not only in the moderately sunny opening, but also in flashes throughout, as she continues to wrestle with her illness. It’s the struggle that makes the tragedy; indeed, her descent is far more painful for the shy pride she takes in her apparent good health at the start, and for the pleasure of her brogue as it occasionally flirts out like a well-turned ankle from beneath her long skirts. As a result, when she eventually heads up the long, long stairs of Tom Pye’s set to the morphine vials in the spare bedroom upstairs, you feel every step’s disaster.
The unexpected size of Lange’s portrayal seems to have surprised and upended the whole production. Usually it is Mary’s husband, James Tyrone, whose theatricality dominates. James is, after all, an actor — one who, like O’Neill’s own father, traded a potentially brilliant career in the classics for the security of romantic hogwash. (In James O’Neill’s case, the hogwash was The Count of Monte Cristo.) But Gabriel Byrne is oddly recessive and small-scale in the role, the junior player instead of the matinee idol he’s meant to be. It’s still a very smart performance, offering vanity, paranoia, love, disappointment, and worry in a flickering slideshow. You see his embarrassment at the way the poverty of his upbringing has permeated every crevice of his personality, like the fog creeping into the house and warping it forever. (James’s penny-pinching, we learn, is the root cause of his wife’s addiction.) But Byrne does not ultimately make an argument for his character that’s strong enough to stand up to Lange’s for hers. Maybe it’s a simple matter of age: Lange is a few years older than Byrne, whereas Mary, as O’Neill specifies her, is 11 years younger than James.
Not that we have to take O’Neill literally. His insanely detailed stage directions — they go on for pages at a clip, naming even the titles of the books on the Tyrones’ shelves — are not indicators of realism but a kind of seawall defining its limits. Long Day’s Journey is not a documentary, however spiritually accurate it may be. Like The Glass Menagerie, it’s a memory play, with all the distortion that suggests. (O’Neill wrote it in the early 1940s about events that took place around 1912; it was not performed until 1956.) Kent’s production, particularly Pye’s set with its expressionistically tilted ceiling and ghostlike traveler curtain, gets that distortion just right. The way Mary is placed on the stage, often at the furthest down-left lip of the living room, on a little settee, makes her seem to loom out of frame like a silent-movie star. And Natasha Katz’s exquisite lighting always manages to pick her out of the miserly dark, leaving the rest of the cast mostly in the murk.
It’s not just the lighting doing that, though. The men — in particular the Tyrones’ two sons, humiliated Jamie (Michael Shannon) and consumptive Edmund (John Gallagher Jr.) — are not quite in the same play as their parents. At six-foot-three, Shannon literally sticks out from them, and his emotional temperature is different as well. Although his suit is just the right amount of spotty (the unerring costumes are by Jane Greenwood) and his perma-squint extreme, he is too hale and powerful to suggest the decadence of the son who failed to escape his father’s gravity. (Jamie works small jobs in the theater when James can procure them; at the summer cottage he does landscaping to earn his keep.) And Gallagher, despite an O’Neill-like mustache and a solid grasp of the character’s line-by-line posture, lacks the style to bring the author’s stand-in to a full romantic boil. He’s often moving, especially in his hopeless mother-love, but it’s a detail-oriented, contemporary performance in a play that’s anything but.
These imbalances do not at all sink the production, which though uncut weighs in at a relatively svelte 3:45. Long Day’s Journey needs every minute, even if its plot can be summarized in just a few words. (Illness and addiction destroy a family’s romantic notions of itself.) The relentless repetitiveness of the characters, here somewhat allayed by the use of crosstalk, is part of the point: Liars eventually lie themselves to death. For the Tyrones no less than the O’Neills, life itself is a hopeless addiction.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is at the American Airlines Theatre through June 26.