W ATERTOWN — When we first see the four members of the Tyrone family in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ they’re in the back parlor of their summer home, enveloped in darkness.
Then James and Mary Tyrone, played by Will Lyman and Karen MacDonald, emerge into the light, bantering affectionately, the very picture of a contented old married couple, while their adult sons, James Jr. (Lewis D. Wheeler) and Edmund (Nicholas Dillenburg), remain in the parlor, talking and laughing.
But it’s not long — well in advance of nightfall, the play’s titular destination — before all four Tyrones are swallowed by darkness again.
Set in 1912 and, at O’Neill’s insistence, not published until after his death, “Long Day’s Journey’’ is not an easy play to bring off today. Classics can crumble beneath the reflexive irony built into the expectations of audiences adept at the eye-roll and the snicker.
O’Neill’s three-hour-plus marathon of sorrow is the polar opposite of the quirky, elliptical, now-you-see-our-emotions-now-you-don’t character sketches that so often pop up on contemporary stages. An autobiographical drama about a family locked in a never-ending cycle of recrimination, guilt, and regret over past sins of omission and commission, it’s a strenuously poetic, self-conscious, incessantly solemn, and frequently heavy-handed work that announces its Big Themes with all the subtlety of a trumpet blast.
But under the direction of Scott Edmiston, the New Rep’s “Long Day’s Journey’’ reminds us that this is a play that still manages to pierce the heart — still touches deep, majestic chords that few other plays can reach. There is something so timeless, even primal, in this family’s struggle and in the way, word by lacerating word, they tear one another apart and then try to put themselves back together again.
Edmiston respects the power of O’Neill’s language and does not put any gimmicks in its way. Neither does Janie E. Howland’s set, an assortment of generously spaced, honey-hued furnishings that leaves plenty of room for the Tyrones to drink, argue, and careen. Edmiston brings a painterly vision and grasp of psychological nuance to the play, employing deft touches to construct a group portrait of the Tyrones as, in effect, living ghosts who are haunting their own lives.
His masterstroke, though, was casting Lyman and MacDonald to play James and Mary Tyrone.
They deliver performances that rank among the finest of their careers — and that is saying plenty. (The pair teamed up to equally excellent effect as another troubled couple in the 2010 Huntington Theatre Company production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons.’’)
As Mary, the emotionally fragile source of much of the family’s heartbreak, MacDonald is just mesmerizing. Part of her uncanny gift as an actress has always been her ability to shift instantaneously from one register to another. As Mary, she veers with startling suddenness from displays of tenderness toward her husband and sons to angry recriminations to broken-hearted reminiscences of her days at a convent school, when she aspired to be a nun.
Mary is locked in a spiral of morphine addiction that began when she had a difficult childbirth with Edmund more than two decades earlier. Now she flutters like a trapped butterfly, anxiously fidgeting with her hair (which becomes increasingly disheveled as Mary descends into a stupor), and becoming more and more evasive as she retreats into a fantasy world.
The festering wound in this family stems from the fact that James, an inveterate cheapskate, wouldn’t spring for a better doctor than a hotel quack to treat Mary’s pain after Edmund’s birth. Now, as the frail, coughing Edmund confronts a possible diagnosis of consumption (or tuberculosis, as we call it), fresh battles flare over whether the old man will seek the cheapest possible care at the cost of his younger son’s health. In a beautifully modulated portrayal, Lyman rises to a blustering self-righteousness that periodically yields to a broken anguish, suggesting that this man knows the truth about himself.
Dillenburg wears an O’Neill-like mustache as Edmund, the character based on the playwright, but he does not, unfortunately, communicate the depths of Edmund’s torment. Wheeler fares better as James Jr., called Jamie, capturing his combination of existential despair and self-destructive dissipation while making it clear just how closely connected the two are.
As they clash and reconcile and clash again, one thing that’s hard to miss about the four members of this tragically flawed family is that they’re all great talkers. But “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,’’ the ultimate word-drunk drama, ends as it began: in silence. For the Tyrones, there is literally nothing left to say.