Jessica Lange is a screen star who doesn’t frequent the Main Stem a lot, but, when she does come, she does not tread lightly.
There was Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1992 and then on to his Glass Menagerie in 2005 for a turn as Amanda Wingfield.
Lange now inhabits Mary, the morphine-addicted matriarch of the long-suffering Tyrone clan in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Eugene O’Neill’s self-proclaimed “play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” No other has ever trod such an unbroken parade of classic heroines across the Broadway boards.
“I know,” she sighs, a bit embarrassed. “I’ve gotten a little beaten up for that, too.”
Perhaps. This season marked Lange’s first time in contention for the Tony Award—which she won on June 12. She’s already got several Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes stashed in her study.
Lange is delivering one of the most profoundly moving performances of her already distinguished career, playing the forgotten wife of a matinee idol (much like O’Neill’s own father). His miserly ways—most notably picking a cheap doctor to help his wife through a troubled childbirth—opened the door to Mary’s lingering drug addiction. She senses that her family is staring right through her—accusing her of falling off the wagon just by looking at her as she hastily, heartbreakingly adjusts the falling strands of her hair. For the first time in the six Broadway Journeys, it becomes the mother’s play.
“I’ll tell you something, I’ve never worked so hard in my whole life,” she confesses. “It’s a combination of things, but, of course, it’s the magnitude of the role. And, really, coming to it at this moment, it’s perfect timing. I have so few distractions in my life. My children are grown. I’m not also trying to mother small children and play Blanche DuBois at the same time, coming home from the theatre, tucking them in bed, getting up with them at 7 AM, making breakfast.
“So, it just feels like I’ve worked harder on this than I ever—or more concentrated, maybe, is what it is—than I’ve ever worked on anything else.”
One of her co-stars—Michael Shannon, who plays the Tyrone family’s firstborn—readily seconds that emotion. “It’s a little overwhelming at times,” he admits. “She has so much power. She’s so deep into it. She’s not messing around. Sometimes, it’s hard to hold her gaze because there’s so much going on inside of her that it’s intimidating.”
And how is Lange going to follow her Long Day’s Journey Into Night?
“I’m going to my cabin in the far north woods of Minnesota where it’s quiet and peaceful,” she says. “Yeah, I’m going to take two months because I know how worn out I’m going to be at the end of this. I just want to be with nature and go through a whole day without talking if I don’t want to. It has always been the place I’ve gone to feel great and to heal and to rejuvenate.”