Review: A Peek into Eugene O’Neill’s Dysfunctional Family

Jill Weinlein

  • Chief Los Angeles Theatre Critic

When I noticed a well-dressed man and a little furry dog walk into the lobby of the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, I immediately recognized Jeremy Irons. His purposeful stride had a distinguished air compared to the nearby theatre attendees near the bar or waiting for the theatre doors to open. While asking a staff member if Jeremy Irons just walked in, she replied “Yes, he and Smudge just arrived.” He had about 35 minutes to dress and prepare for his role of James Tyrone in the Eugene O’Neill award-winning play A Long Day's Journey into Night.

I saw this play last year at the Geffen Playhouse with Alfred Molina and Jane Kaczmarek as James and Mary Tyrone, and was eager to see how one of the greatest UK director’s Richard Eyre tackled this beast of a play at the Wallis. I say that, because it is a 3 hours and 25 minutes production, with just one 15-minute intermission.

For those unfamiliar with Eugene O’Neill’s iconic play, it’s a semi-biographical story about O’Neill’s life. He changed his Irish-American family name to Tyrone. When it opened on Broadway in 1956, it won a Tony Award for Best Play, then in 1957 it won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

 Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Lawrence K. Ho)

Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville in "Long Day's Journey Into Night" at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts (Lawrence K. Ho)

Set in Connecticut, the scenic and costume designer Rob Howell got the costumes spot on for this period piece, however his set design was very modern with a glass panel ceiling and angled glass walls. Some of the panels have blue fading to yellow horizontal lines alluding to the sea nearby. Maybe Howell strived for the old European proverb “Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” In this play, each member of the Tyrone family has faults of one kind or another. They indulge in vices while revealing the ugly truth of their ruined lives. Sound Designer John Leonard’s fog horn corresponds to the haunting gloominess inside the house. Mary Tyrone played exquisitely by Oscar nominee Lesley Manville has a line in the play “The gloom in the air is so thick, you can cut it with a knife.” She is sick and tired of pretending this summer house is a home. “The fog makes everything sad and lonely,” Manville recites.

Irons is magnificent as Eugene O'Neill's father, James. With the flick of his hair, light of a cigarette, roll of an eye, and a faint hint of a smile, he is fascinating to watch. It’s just so easy for him to take this role and make it feel so real. This great actor is one of only a few to win a Tony, Oscar, an Emmy award.  

The chemistry between Irons and his co-star Manville is pleasing to watch. Her fragility as a drug addict is believable as demonstrated with a shaking leg, alluding to the morphine wearing off and her anxiousness for another fix. She speaks so clearly and eloquently while moving like a cyclone around the stage with her endless rambling about her past. She clings to everyone, even when they show contempt and disgust towards her weaknesses.

Rory Keenan plays James Jr. also known as Jamie. He’s a disappointment to the family, but wonderful to watch as a good for nothing drunk. Matthew Beard playing Edmund wasn’t as believable, especially after intermission, when this young actor was up against Irons in the final scenes. He speaks too quickly and doesn't seem sick enough to have consumption. It’s hard for an up and coming actor to have the panache Irons so easily portrays. Also, his drunken ways weren’t as believable as Irons and Keenan.

Jessica Regan with her strong Irish brogue is the only comic relief in the play. The audience commiserates with her as she nips at the whiskey bottle frequently while sitting and listening to Mary’s sad life story about how her talent and beauty have eerily disappeared.

Lighting Designer Peter Mumford dims the stage throughout the show and had the stage so dark after intermission to emphasize James Tyrone’s miser personality and eternal gloom.

O’Neill changed his name to Edmund in this play, probably to provide anonymity. Similar to the character in the play, O’Neill did attend a university, spend a few years at sea, contribute to a local newspaper and wrote poetry. The ages of the characters are the actual ages of the O'Neill family in 1912, shortly before Eugene developed consumption and entered a sanatorium for six months to recover. Afterward, he devoted himself to write Long Day’s Journey into Night with the stipulation that it never be published until he died.

Standing in the lobby after the show, I noticed Irons and Smudge walking outside to a motorcycle. With my one chance to get my father close to his (and mine) favorite movie and stage star, I led my father to Irons and asked if my father could be in a photo with him. Kindly this dignified man put his arm around my father’s shoulder, listened to my father praising his talent, and blessed my dad on Father’s Day as I snapped away. As he turned to leave, Smudge came over to me and licked my hand after I gave him a scratch. Then the two walked across Canon Drive in Beverly Hills and disappeared. The memory of this theatrical experience before, during and after Long Day’s Journey into Night will stay with me forever.

This exclusive West Coast Engagement at The Wallis runs until July 1. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit TheWallis.org/LongDays or call 310.746.4000, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210.