We had the great pleasure of seeing the new production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" in New York last weekend. It starred the accomplished actors Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange as James and Mary Tyrone, the parents of the tortured family of four whose fraught relationships are tracked across four acts that take them from morning to midnight. The older son, Jamie, is played with lacerating intensity by Michael Shannon. The other son, Edmund, who leans toward poetry and romantic despair, is played by John Gallagher, Jr. The director is Jonathan Kent.
We don't go to see much theater, so it ended up being quite an eye-opening evening for me. I almost said life changing, but I don't think I'll run away to join a theater troupe anytime soon, so I'll not get carried away here. What is true is that I learned some things about theater's unique power that night -- things that theater lovers already know, but which really jumped out at me.
The first had to do with the raw physicality of the play, the sense of power and emotion communicated by the positioning of bodies and how the actors used their bodies as instruments. I have never gotten the same sense from a movie or television show -- even the really good ones. Not even close. Our seats were in the balcony of the small theater, so we looked down on the stage, which depicted the "great room" of the family's coastal home. In the center of the room stood a table and two chairs, and on the table rested a bottle of whiskey that occupied the space like a tragic totem. Always the whiskey. Few scenes took place without some contact with it. It was their sacrament and their poison.
Creating such a powerful and seamless rendition of a play such as "Long Day's Journey," so intricate and long and wrenching, must take a huge amount of effort and commitment. Byrne and Lange likely don't need the money, so it must be that theater means a lot to them as actors. In fact, I would guess it means everything to them.