Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehyin Long Day’s Journey Into Night(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Vanessa Redgrave and Brian Dennehy
in Long Day’s Journey Into Night
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
As a 12th anniversary present in July of 1941, Eugene O'Neill handed his wife Carlotta the only copy of a text on which he'd been working for the previous two years. He included a note that went: "I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood....[I]t is a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play -- write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones."

The play he offered with such humility is, of course, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and Carlotta Monterey O'Neill was aware of the effort that her angst-ridden husband had put into it. She was later quoted as saying of the astonishing work, "He had to write it because it was a thing that haunted him ... He would come out of his study looking gaunt, his eyes red from weeping. Sometimes he looked 10 years older than when he went in in the morning."

Recalling the red-eyed and gaunt look that O'Neill took on, Mrs. O'Neill could just as easily have been reporting on audiences after they've spent four hours looking into the dark abyss that is arguably the best American play of the 20th century, the drama that handles the quintessential American subject -- dysfunctional families -- with more unflinching courage than any other home-grown product. Granted, the play is considered by some to be marred by repetition. (So are all of the top-drawer O'Neill plays.) Granted, O'Neill's dialogue is often blunt, relentlessly prosaic; Mary McCarthy, that insistent spoil-sport, said that O'Neill didn't have "an ear for the word, the sentence, the speech, the paragraph." Yet the repetition is thematic, the harsh dialogue inevitable. Starting with its inspired title, Long Day's Journey Into Night is an ineffable poem about inconsolable anguish.

In order for a monumental play to register fully, a production of concomitant scale is required. The glad news is that Robert Falls's current mounting equals O'Neill's very specific demands. A director who has bobbled previous treatments of first-rate dramas, including Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman four years ago and Tennessee Williams's The Night of the Iguana three years before that, Falls vaporizes memories of those inadequate tries with the sure, sensitive hand he applies here. "All is forgiven," a grateful reviewer is tempted to exclaim.

Falls success begins with the actors he's cast to play the disputatious James Tyrone family on the steamy 1912 summer day during which they relentlessly attack and gingerly retreat from one another, alternately attempting to banish and hide behind their self-delusions. (As one speech has it, "What you want to believe, that's the only truth.") In tapping Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Robert Sean Leonard to embody (respectively) the miserly and autocratic James Tyrone, the morphine-addicted Mary, the wastrel Jamie, and the ailing and failing Edmund, Falls has adhered closely to O'Neill's descriptions of the characters -- which stipulate, among other things, that James Tyrone is "broad-shouldered and deep-chested" and that Jamie "has his father's broad-shouldered, deep-chested physique." Dennehy and Hoffman fit those descriptions, just as Redgrave and Leonard share the face O'Neill calls for: thin, with "prominent bone structure."

With the actor's resemblances established -- and with the implied potential for familial alliances and ruptures -- Dennehy, Hoffman, Leonard, and Redgrave let fly a series of thespian miracles that are actually the results of giving themselves over to the myriad conflicting emotions lodged in O'Neill's dialogue. In love with his wife and hating her for drowning love with drugs, adamant about not acknowledging his penny-pinching habits, Dennehy's James Tyrone lumbers across the stage like a storm gathering. He finds innumerable subtleties as a man who is unsure of how to deal with two disappointing sons. James Tyrone is an actor who's played the same part satisfyingly for years, and Dennehy continually suggests Tyrone's on-stage prowess -- gesturing broadly, dipping into accents, doing instant imitations.

Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave,and Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day’s Journey Into Night(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Vanessa Redgrave,
and Robert Sean Leonard in Long Day’s Journey Into Night
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
As the meeker of Tyrone boys, Leonard wears a sense of inadequacy like an emblem on his furrowed brow. Some of his best moments are those during which he keenly observes his family as O'Neill must have done, unconsciously storing material for this play. Hoffman, one of the valuable platoon of contemporary actors who can play anything by not seeming to act at all, is mesmerizing throughout. As Jamie, his retorts to the elder Tyrone's accusations are sodden with venom. And when he lets go a tirade of self-loathing in the third act (the four-act play is performed with only two intermissions here), the facets he finds within it are astonishing.

Then there's Redgrave, who seemingly reveals a million expressions as a woman trying to negotiate between and around her husband and sons while slowly giving in to the addiction she has no will to resist. Her hands constantly busy, Redgrave even manages to imply terror when stuffing a wrung handkerchief up her elbow-length sleeve; it's as if she's injecting the hypodermic needle she's known to be concealing. Mary Tyrone, whose play this is to some extent, is one of the greatest characters in the history of drama, and, living every moment of it in a breathless inner rage, Redgrave gives a great performance. Fiana Toibin, as a housemaid with a Rembrandt face, carries off her few scenes extremely well.

Although Falls triumphantly meets O'Neill's major challenges, he does miss a few tricks. His worst gaffe is allowing (encouraging?) set and costume designer Santo Loquasto to construct the Tyrone house of dark wood planks that rise into the fly space and threaten to dwarf the characters. Loquasto compounds that misstep by enclosing the house with more walls made from the same heavy material. Perhaps the intention is to imply the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the Tyrones suffer their harrowing encounters but, if so, it doesn't work. In this autobiographical play, O'Neill was commemorating the white clapboard Connecticut home in which he was brought up and from which he continually saw fog and heard foghorns, but the abode that Loquasto has designed looks more like a hunting lodge than a seaside residence. "Thank heavens, the fog has gone," Mary Tyrone says in the first act. How can she tell with all those brown planks getting in the way? Further obscuring the view from time to time, Brian MacDevitt's lighting is often darker than necessary to make the play's literal and symbolic points.

Falls trips up on two other counts. First, he never prods his players to indicate the effects of the "hot sun" Mary mentions. When James and Jamie return from a few hours spent trimming the front hedge, they don't show the slightest signs of having sweated, even though they never changed out of the period tweeds in which Loquasto has outfitted them. Perhaps more damaging to the manuscript's impact, Falls seems not to have urged Robert Sean Leonard to do anything to offset his generally healthy glow beyond having the occasional coughing spell. Mary, in denial on many issues, continually maintains that Edmund has nothing worse than a seasonal cold; from Leonard's looks, she appears to be right.

Long Day's Journey Into Night is one of those works by which any self-proclaimed theater-lover tests his or her sincerity. To forego this lacerating but superlative revival is to fail the exam.