When the production began previews on April 26, it was expected the mounting would do well. The reunion of the Death of a Salesman team of producer David Richenthal, director Robert Falls and actor Brian Dennehy, as well as the presence of British acting great Vanessa Redgrave, ensured there would be sizable audience interest. Solid reviews after the May 6 opening, and Tony Awards for Dennehy and Redgrave and Best Revival of Play provided further insurance.
However, even Richenthal, talking to the New York Post, admitted he was surprised when the production returned its investment in a mere eight weeks. For most of the entire summer, the Plymouth Theatre has been sold to capacity, with overflow crowds standing at the back of the auditorium.
The greatest draw of the production was perhaps not the play itself but Redgrave's performance as disappointed, drug-addled Mary Tyrone. Critics spoke of it as a once-in-a-lifetime portrayal and theatregoers flocked to see what looked to be a historical piece of acting. Also in the cast were Robert Sean Leonard and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the troubled Tyrone sons. Both were Tony nominated, as was director Falls.
Falls' generally straight-forward rendition ran three-and-one-half hours and boasted two intermissions. The top ticket price was $100, owing, Richenthal told The Daily News, to a long, six-week rehearsal period, overtime expenses incurred by the running time and a seven show week (one less than usual).
Designers are Santo Loquasto (set and costume), Brian MacDevitt (lighting) and Richard Woodbury (sound). The rich family drama by O'Neill, inspired by events and tensions in his own family, is set in 1912, in the New England summer home of a retired penny-pinching actor who, born into poverty, gave up his artistic ideals to endlessly tour in a commercial melodrama. His poet son Edmund is tubercular and soon to be sent to a sanitorium, and his wife Mary, abandoned to years of loneliness as her husband toured, is addicted to morphine. Both ailments are due to ineffective treatments from the local quack doctor, used by the father because he's so affordable. Jamie, meanwhile, has long since been lost to a self-destructive life of bars and brothels. On a long summer day—starting at 8:30 in the morning and lasting well past midnight—the family members scratch and probe their pasts and their choices, searching each other's perceived crimes for the source of their ongoing misery and loss of faith.
O'Neill demanded the play not be performed until 25 years after his death (he died in 1953), but his widow agreed to an American premiere in 1956, directed by Jose Quintero. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The first New York staging starred Jason Robards Jr. as Jamie; he would later play the aged Jamie in the related O'Neill play, A Moon for the Misbegotten. The current mounting is the fourth to see Broadway. Many consider the play the finest drama ever written by an American playwright.
Richenthal next project will be the Broadway transfer of Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. As for his work with Falls and Dennehy, the director and actor have gone on the record as considering a staging of King Lear.