The play starts with an uncomfortable mimicry of a happy family. Mary and James, the parents of the family, are embarrassingly cute, professing their love for one another while their sons faux-retch. But despite everyone’s herculean efforts, the façade is falling apart.
Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical play tracks one day, from breakfast until the early hours of the morning, in a family where nobody knows how to relate to each other anymore. Edmund, who is based on O’Neill, is sick, possibly with consumption. His frugal father is still trying to get the best deal for his care, perhaps at the expense of Edmund himself. Jamie, the eldest son, is struggling with being broke and living at home. But all these storylines are overshadowed by Mary’s morphine addiction, which has a profound effect on the family. This play was so personal that O’Neill would only allow it to be staged after this death, and it’s easy to see why. The rawness of it, part of what makes the play so engaging, is shocking.
Dominic Hill’s direction pulls out the underlying tension. It’s a very uneasy watch. The feelings of betrayal and anger erupt suddenly and dissipate shockingly fast. The message is driven in over and over again: this wouldn’t be so hard if the family didn’t love each other so much. Brawls and furious arguments end in embraces and shared tears. Anyone who has ever been in a family argument can probably relate. Hill also manages to tease out the humour. At various points, such as when Kathleen, the servant, pours herself yet another whiskey, the entire audience was laughing. This serves to remind us that all the characters, while flawed, are just human, and makes the tragedy even more deeply felt.
The performances by the entire cast are slick and natural. While a fairly long play, running at three hours and fifteen minutes including an interval, you remain fully engrossed throughout. Bríd Ní Neachtain as Mary particularly stood out as delivering a highly nuanced and delicate performance of the descent into intoxication. While it is easy to understand the anger directed at her from the rest of the family, Neachtain showed clearly Mary’s pain is far more complex than her addiction.
The production takes place in a giant carcass of a house, with walls made out of see-through plastic wrap. Apart from during breakfast, the stage is almost always dark and gloomy, even at midday. The atmosphere throughout is eerie and trapping, linking to the running theme of a house that some of the characters will never be able to call home.
As the final major production at the Citizens Theatre (here in a co-production with Manchester’s HOME) before they close for two years for refurbishment, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a triumphant send-off. An emotional rollercoaster that never loses sight of the humanity of the characters, this is not a show to be missed.