Richard Eyre has called Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical magnum opus “the saddest play ever written”, which is overdoing things only a little. The fictional Tyrone family so resembles the historical O’Neills circa 1912 that it is impossible to doubt that the playwright was meditating upon his own family, and that this was why he refused to have it staged, or published until 25 years after his death. (His widow circumvented these prohibitions in 1956, three years after O’Neill died and 15 years after the play’s composition.) The portrait of addiction and dysfunction is harrowing: the Tyrone men share a seemingly congenital alcoholism; Edmund (the authorial surrogate) is falling prey to consumption; and wife and mother Mary nurses a morphine habit that generates a form of paranoid schizophrenia even when she is not actively using.
Anthony Page’s production (staged just next door to the Lyric which saw the play’s last West End outing in 2000) pulls off the considerable achievement of making the play not a gruelling experience. Without betraying the aggression, manipulation and general mental imbalance that pervade the family, Page gives equal weight to sincerity and compassion. The two strains feel much more evenly balanced than usual, which makes the repeated tipping-over to the dark side all the more poignant. Right from the opening breakfast-time scene, we see that James and Mary Tyrone are genuinely affectionate and regretful when they lapse from this mode. James is not the domestic tyrant of usual portrayals: David Suchet (now surely Britain’s premier interpreter of the 20th-century American classic repertoire) shows him to be a prisoner of his various insecurities but not their willing slave.
But, for once, this is Mary’s play. Laurie Metcalf rigorously eschews all operatic signals of mental collapse; she delivers Mary’s increasingly frequent, increasingly cracked verbal riffs in a temperate key. Only the rapid delivery and the obsessive content suggest that she is a woman letting go. When she seems in Act Three finally to have abdicated her reason, Page finds a powerful contrast between her skewed homily and the three menfolk – James, drunkard elder son Jamie (Trevor White) and the tubercular Edmund (Kyle Soller) – sitting silent and immobile, bereft of any meaningful response to this relapse. There will, no doubt, be tears before bedtime; however, this time they will be not racking shrieks but muted, heartfelt sobs.