Considered one of America's greatest dramas, the text is revered on this side of the pond, too – in the National's recent survey of the most significant plays of the 20th century, Long Day's Journey into Night was voted in right up there at number five. And in this sensitive production directed by Robin Phillips, it more than matches up to its reputation as a masterpiece of modern theatre.
The story about the disintegration of a family is all the more poignant for its very non-fictional nature. Famously “written in tears and blood”, it is based on O'Neill's own youth, living in turn of the 20th century New England with his morphine-addicted mother, alcoholic elder brother and penny-pinching failed actor father. And so for the Tyrones read the Irish-American O Neill s and for consumptive Edmund read young Eugene himself.
The family is brought to life in Phillips production by an all-star cast who are, without fail, terrific. Jessica Lange plays mother Mary with echoes of a young Katherine Hepburn, hair piled atop her head. Lange captures perfectly the junkie's spiralling decline. We watch in horror as, during a day's passing, her composure cracks and shatters, the caginess and nervous wringing of hands and fidgeting giving way to drugged-out stupor. Though she owes her addiction to the years-ago prescriptions of a quack doctor – her husband wouldn't pay for a proper one – after childbirth, Mary is hardly blameless in the household trauma. She never misses a chance to stick the emotional knife in, piercing her family's individual guilts and weaknesses.
The other Tyrones claim their fair share of bitterness and recriminations, too, but none come across as unsympathetic. Amidst moments of battle, they demonstrate real love towards each other – and even remnants of sexual desire between Mary and a restrained Charles Dance as father James – and also deeply-felt personal wounds, nursed touchingly. In the third act, the male characters come into their own as those wounds are licked. The father recalls his impoverished youth and his betrayal of his art, and more shockingly, Paul Rudd s sozzled Jamie reveals his destructive feelings towards his younger brother (Paul Nicholls).
Aside from the family and their maid (Olivia Colman), there is another dominating character present in this production – the fog that engulfs proceedings and Simon Higlett's rendition of the Tyrones drab summer house. It swirls above open rafters and behind translucent walls, it infuses the dialogue, insulates the action and clouds the family s judgements hauntingly.
And the overall effect of the fog and the fine acting and the electric emotion on the audience? Utterly mesmerising, even after three and a half hours and a sore backside.