EXCERPT FROM THE PROGRAM
Below is an excerpt from the dramaturgy pages of the Long Day's Journey Into Night program written by Robyn Quick.
“There are roles that arrive like gifts. Given and received. Mary Tyrone was that. No part I have played on stage or in film has ever captured me more. Actors can fall in love with characters they play, obsess over them, cling to them... sometimes we’re haunted by them. I loved Mary Tyrone. I longed to get to the theater each evening so I could experience her. So I could lose myself in her. The part of Mary Tyrone is a bottomless well. Impossible to exhaust.” —Jessica Lange (Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Critical Edition)
Everyman Artistic Director Vincent Lancisi always knew that his theatre must one day stage what he calls “the ultimate family tragedy,” Long Day’s Journey Into Night. To him, it was “only a matter of time before we scale this mountain.” But, as director of a professional theatre where the actor is at the center of the work, he had to wait until the moment was right for members of Everyman’s Resident Company to take on the task of playing the Tyrones. As theatre critic David Richards observed, these roles have special significance in the theatre: “From its very first performance in 1956, when Frederic March, Florence Eldridge, Bradford Dillman, and a young Jason Robards Jr. put their indelible stamp on the Tyrone family, Long Day’s Journey Into Night has enjoyed a forbidding reputation. […] Long Day’s Journey Into Night, you see, is no longer just a play. It is one of the theatre’s holy texts, a challenge by which careers are measured.” (“Casting a Fearless Eye on a Sacred Text,” The New York Times)
Generations of actors—from stage veterans to those beginning their acting careers—have eagerly welcomed this challenge. Jessica Lange’s notion of the role of Mary as a gift was echoed by Michael Shannon, her Jamie in the 2016 Broadway production. Shannon explained, “To me, it feels like a real privilege to do this play. It feels like being admitted into some secret society or something. There’s a lot of good actors in the world, but they don’t all get to do this.” (Alexis Soloski, “Of Booze, Brutal Honesty, and Family,” The New York Times)
For many actors who have performed in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, admission to this “secret society” was made all the more special by their connections to the performance history of the play. Academy Award-winning actress Teresa Wright had an unforgettable experience watching Eldridge and March on Broadway in 1956; the elder actors became her friends and saw her in the role of Mary at Hartford Stage in 1971. That production at Hartford Stage also featured Tana Hicken as the Tyrone’s young maid, Cathleen. Ms. Hicken went on to play Mary at Arena Stage in a 1995 performance considered powerful by critics and deeply moving by audience members, including Lancisi. When it came time for Everyman to produce Long Day’s Journey Into Night in 2018, Lancisi knew that he must put it in the hands of his long-time artistic associate, director Donald Hicken, who had lived the play through his wife Tana’s productions.
The part of Mary Tyrone is a bottomless well. Impossible to exhaust.” —Jessica Lange
Donald Hicken describes Long Day’s Journey Into Night as “the holy grail” for actors, not just for this performance history, but also because playwright Eugene O’Neill’s characters “require a level of commitment and virtuosity that few roles match.”
Actors have noted the wide range of emotions displayed by each character as among the challenges of performing the play. Teresa Wright was humbled by this aspect of the work: “I can’t help [but] feel great inadequacy because it’s played on so many levels of emotion—anger, hate, innocence, all mixed up with love, gratitude to her husband—it takes some doing to call on all those emotions.” She admitted, “It is exhausting but exhilarating—exhilarating if it goes well.” (Doris Whitbeck, “Teresa Wright Runs Emotional Gamut,” The Hartford Courant)
Jessica Lange also pointed to the “contradictions and the layering of emotions—woven into a patchwork pattern of sorrow, grief, guilt, anger, blame, love, desire, hate” as part of what makes Mary “a profound and fascinating character” to play. She shared Wright’s sense that “playing multiple emotions in the same moment is exciting.” (“Forward,” Long Day’s Journey Into Night: Critical Edition)
And despite the predominantly realistic characters and setting—inspired by events from O’Neill’s life as a young man—the play requires a level of emotional intensity that calls to mind the challenges of performing classical drama. Donald Hicken considers the role of James Tyrone to be America’s King Lear. Others have compared the play to Greek tragedy due to the extraordinary level of human suffering that the characters cause, endure, and seek to survive. As theatre critic Nelson Pressley put it, “The emotions of the autobiographical drama are Olympian, cutting right to the bone because O’Neill dared to unlock the terrible wreckage of his family life from his secret heart.” (“Compelling Journey through O’Neill Classic,” The Washington Times)
The power of the play, however, does not just emanate from individual performances, but from the relationships among the characters. Playing the Tyrones requires ensemble acting that Lancisi likens to an “awesome string quartet.” When Diana Leblanc directed the play at the Stratford Festival in 1994, she found, “the thing that makes it interesting, makes it heart-breaking, is that these people want to love each other, need each other’s love, but keep tearing shreds off each other.” She describes the dynamic: “None of them can move without reverberations, like a set of interlocking tectonic plates. They’re a family.” (“A Theatrical Journey of her Own.” The Globe and Mail)
Gabriel Byrne, who played James Tyrone on Broadway in 2016, felt an even longer series of reverberations that gave performing in the play its real meaning: “There’s kind of an invisible connection between [O’Neill], what he called the haunted Tyrones, us on stage, and the audience. And we get to share that.” (Broadway World)
Actors will be at the center of Everyman’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, as well, as the company engages Baltimore audiences with powerful performances of complex characters—and a journey that continues to provide spellbinding theatre.