How telling is it that Eugene O’Neill self-censored himself to the point of demanding that this patently autobiographical family-therapy session be suppressed for a quarter-century after his death? (His widow didn’t comply.) Almost no one comes off well here: not Mary Tyrone (here a fluttery yet steel-edged Lesley Manville) in her unsubtle attempts to undermine her two sons’ allegiance to their father – a shaky bond to begin with – nor the adult “boys” themselves, the younger (clearly the authorial voice) a consumptive dreamer, the other a dedicated degenerate at 33.
Oddly enough in this starry Old Vic transfer, James Tyrone, Sr. (the irrepressibly suave and elegant Jeremy Irons) comes off as the relative saint among the bunch. So the old man is a bit tightfisted (lighting designer Peter Mumford works wonders with the single light bulb that the old skinflint insists on). An actor’s finances are never secure; besides which, Tyrone’s act-four précis of his Dickensian childhood is excuse enough.
Mary, while self-apotheosizing as a woulda-coulda-been saint, is a character seemingly designed to irritate. Certainly her drugged-out, witching-hour auto-canonization, in the wrong hands, can prove more nauseating than touching. (Trigger warning for anyone who has ever sat through the novena of excuses slurred by the opiate- or alcohol-impaired.)
Manville somehow manages to maintain Mary’s grip on our sympathies. Maybe it’s the way director Richard Eyre has her gravitate to a certain spot mid-stage right, where she gazes, gimlet-eyed, out into the audience. Mary appears to know exactly what she’s up to. It’s her family who seem willfully blind. Again and again, they allude to her using – only to allow her to deflect. It’s not until deep into the play that they’ll acknowledge the obvious (with a bit of dated slang): She’s a “dope fiend.”
But a highly energized one! You can’t help wondering what cocktail Mary is on – maybe speedballs, rather than mere drugstore morphine? Whatever the source, Mary’s headlong descent into ultimate dopiness makes for a much speedier first half. It’s not until act four, when – in her absence – we’re reduced to the bloviating boys (father included), that the pace lags.
Whatever the faults of this logorrheic play (O’Neill seemed never content until he’d beaten his chosen thesis to death), this crack production yields moments of emotion and conjecture definitely worth our ongoing attention.