One wonders if Eugene O’Neil would have written such wonderful plays if his childhood had been secure and happy. Or, come to that, whether he would have written plays at all. For he is a playwright whose works largely rely on the dysfunctional family dynamic; none more so than Long Day’s Journey Into Night currently at Wyndhams Theatre, the play which most closely illustrates his tortured upbringing.
With a superb cast of five, Richard Eyre directs with great style and aplomb. Leading the way is the incomparable Lesley Manville, so very fine in everything she does, especially when period angst is required. Here she plays Mary Tyrone, wife of James and mother to James Tyrone Jr and Edmund. Recently returned from a stint in a sanatorium, the family are celebrating the fact that this time she has returned stronger and more positive. Or has she? The excellent Jeremy Irons, playing cigar smoking, Shakespeare quoting husband James, continually mentions how plump and well she looks. But there are tell-tale signs that this imperceptibly nervy woman has problems she is trying to hide. From the constant touching of her hair to bursts of rapid dialogue (much of it “on repeat”) the “once an addict always an addict” rings true. As the morphine once again takes hold, the tenuous struggle to appear normal fails and the forced happiness turns to nervous disappointment and eventual drug addled blankness. There is no doubt that she is loved by James and her sons, exasperated as they are by her inability to kick her habit, but years of resentment at never being able to call anywhere home, the loss of their middle child and constant worry that Edmund has far more wrong with him than the mere cold she insists he has, have left her vulnerable to the numbing effects that morphine brings.
The words, “Mama is back on the morphine” is never actually spoken out loud, although we’re left in no doubt that the eldest son, James, never believes she can be cured. Edmund and his father grasp at straws that this time the sanatorium has done a good job but they eventually have to admit the truth. Jeremy Irons perfectly captures his character’s dismay at the knowledge that he has once more lost the love of his life to the insidious drug. The accusing glance he gives her on realising she is sliding back into her old ways is both chilling and full of sorrow.
It’s not just Mary’s state of mind that is sliding. The whole family is hurtling downhill and their unloved holiday house is full to the rafters in lost hope. The men reach oblivion by drinking far too much, everyone picks holes in everyone else and the unhappiness that pervades this dysfunctional quartet is palpable. And it’s not just this long day that brings forth such disappointment. It has been brewing for some time. Cheapskate James senior has a lifetime of regret that his acting career, although lucrative, was filled with mediocre work. His eldest son’s self-loathing is never far from the surface, whilst Edmund (for his character read Eugene himself) retreats from his illness into the world of morbid poetry.
And it’s not just Mary who exists within a bubble of emotional inconsistency. It’s the family's default button. James senior, having decided that Edmund be assigned to a cheap state sanatorium, declares that, as money is no object, “within reason”, he will have the best treatment possible. James junior praises his younger brother’s literary efforts in one breath and in another derides them. For the Tyrone’s life is an allusion.
What is real is the fact that there is no weak link in this production of O’Neil’s autobiographical masterpiece. Manville and Irons have terrific support from Rory Keenan as the boisterous degenerate James and Matthew Beard as the romantically inclined Edmund, who looks so skinny and pale that it takes no leap of faith to believe he has TB. The former fails to take on board anything anyone says, whilst Beard turns attentiveness into an art form. Add the welcome touch of comedy from Jessica Regan’s Irish maid, and the three hours, twenty, whilst not actually flying by don’t drag for a minute.