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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Long Day's Journey Into Night
Lyric Theatre       Winter 2000-01

Eugene O'Neill's posthumous play (written 1940, first produced 1956) is the American theatre's one towering tragic masterpiece.

The overpoweringly claustrophobic dissection of a family who commit the most horrible emotional atrocities upon each other, it fights its way through the suffering to understanding and a transcendent forgiveness.

Robin Phillips' new production captures all of the play's power in a long,draining, and - as all great tragedy must be - ultimately uplifting journey that is, quite simply, the finest theatrical experience available in London today.

The fact that the play was based on O'Neill's own family, and that he began to write it as an act of vengeance for the harm they did to him, makes its accomplishment all the greater, because as he wrote it he realized that everyone was acting out of love, however distorted, and that everyone was acting as their past experiences drove them to, with little power to fight their programming.

That is the play's extraordinary discovery - that we must constantly forgive ourselves and each other for the thousands of small crimes we cannot help committing simply because we're human.

At the centre of the play is Jessica Lange as the mother tragically addicted to morphine by a quack doctor and now relapsing one more time.

Unlike several other cases this season, this is not just a Hollywood has-been searching for a comeback. Lange gives as subtly beautiful a performance as one could wish, letting only the briefest flashes of vulgarity or split-second nodding off lead us to the realization of what is happening to her.

And the rest of the cast are equally fine. Charles Dance is every inch the fading matinee idol as father James Tyrone, unconsciously posing in profile even when his rawest emotions are being exposed, and letting us understand, more than any other Tyrone I've seen, how deeply he loves his wife and sons.

As the dissipated elder son Jamie, Paul Rudd is less the laid-back cynic than others have played him, and more visibly torn by self-disgust and self-hatred, while Paul Nicholls captures the unconscious egotism and self-pity of the sickly younger son.

The last act of Long Day's Journey is the finest thing O'Neill ever wrote, which means that (with the possible exception of some passages by Tennessee Williams) it is the finest thing any American dramatist ever wrote.

Sunk in alcohol, drugs or despair, each of the characters comes face to face with a horrible truth about themselves. A lesser dramatist would have made the revelations liberate them and create a happy ending, but O'Neill shows them stumbling on, as trapped by the unbreakable patterns of the past as they were before.

For the last 40 minutes of this play the writing, the extraordinary psychological insights, the raw emotion, the transcendent poetry capture and transport you so fully that you have to remind yourself to breathe. When is the last time that happened to you in a theatre?

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Long Day's Journey Into Night - Lyric Theatre 2000

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