When Eugene O’Neill was writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night between 1939 and 1941, he’d emerge from his study at the end of each day with eyes bloodshot from crying. Needless to say, living with the tortured playwright couldn’t have been a hoot. And it was probably as an act of penance that O’Neill dedicated the autobiographical play to his wife on their 12th wedding anniversary: ”A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness.”
And how. As anniversary gifts go, Journey isn’t exactly a trip to the Bahamas. Hell, it’s not even an FTD bouquet. What the Tyrone family saga is, is one of the greatest, most depressing, and, at four hours, longest plays in the American canon. It’s also the kind of gut wrencher that beckons to big-name actors like a carnival barker. Here, Vanessa Redgrave stars as the morphine-addicted matriarch, Mary; Brian Dennehy portrays her boisterous tightwad husband, James; Philip Seymour Hoffman is the soused, cynical elder son, Jamie; and Robert Sean Leonard is O’Neill’s stand-in, the sickly poet and younger son, Edmund. Between these four characters there are more ghosts and demons than in Salem’s Lot. And between these four stars, there’s enough wattage to power Madison Square Garden, never mind Broadway’s Plymouth Theatre.
Redgrave, Dennehy, Hoffman, and Leonard are certainly all heavyweight stage actors (well, Leonard’s more like a middleweight in a ring of bareknuckle power punchers). And they all have showy scenes they ace. But often they come off as ”big actors” doing an ”important play.” Instead of spying on the deeply-in-denial Tyrones, watching their secrets slowly stew and curdle into anger and recrimination, we feel like we’re witnessing a symphony of soloists. They only begin to jell in the play’s detonating final act.
Reteaming with his Death of a Salesman director Robert Falls, the full-bodied Dennehy is hard not to like as James, a man for whom no problem is too big to sweep under the rug. He’s capable of being both touching and tragic. But he also tends to boil when he should simmer. Over the course of the play, Hoffman whipsaws from mopey wallflower to Falstaffian lush. Unfortunately, we want more of him when he’s not around, and less of him when he is. Leonard holds his own – an accomplishment in itself – but he can get snagged in O’Neill’s wordy thickets. And subtlety is not his forte – the first time he hacks into a hankie his fate is sealed.
Ultimately, Redgrave steals the show precisely because she’s not trying to steal the show. She knows that the play is, in fact, a long day’s journey, and slowly strips away layers of emotional armor. Chipper in Act 1, Redgrave takes on the tics of an addict – her fingers appear knotted with need – as the itch for her ”medicine” grows. By the time she stumbles on stage, regressed into a childlike ghost state, in the play’s chilling final moments, she’s no longer Vanessa Redgrave – she’s an actress as naked as Kathleen Turner, Nicole Kidman, and the entire cast of Oh! Calcutta! combined. It’s just barely what makes this Journey worth taking.