Robert Falls admits that his decision to direct a full-length, four-hour version of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" was a risk.
"What people know about O'Neill is that he tended to write long, serious plays," he says. "They think it's like medicine that's going to be good for [them], or something they'll sleep through. But I felt it was worthwhile to explore it at its real length."
His decision paid off. The play has received numerous awards since its opening earlier this month, following a successful run at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. It enters the Tony Awards with seven nominations, including all four lead actors, plus the director.
"I think it's the greatest American play," Mr. Falls says. "The other great works I've done, like Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman,' and Tennessee Williams's 'A Glass Menagerie' ... and even [Edward] Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' are all masterpieces, but this one is head and shoulders above the others. It's an amazingly personal piece of art."
Set in a summer cottage on the coastline of Connecticut in August 1912, the story traces the tragic events of a family through one full day. The head of the household is James Tyrone, an old stage actor who built his career on playing the same role again and again. His wife, Mary, is a morphine addict who became hooked after their infant son died. The two surviving sons are Jamie, a failed actor who frequents whorehouses, and Edmund, at home after an adventure at sea and now afflicted with tuberculosis.
Falls explains that this was a day of "two enormous crises. Edmund will be hospitalized, and is likely to die from TB, and Mary, after trying for months to kick her morphine habit, is back on it.
"O'Neill's art completely captures every aspect of these lives, past and present - in that period, a work of psychological telescoping unmatched in dramatic literature," he says.
Falls says he enjoys seeing the way audiences have caught up with O'Neill's "raucous, black Irish comic sense."
"We think of him as the gloomiest of writers, but there's a great richness of humor in the writing. He can be terribly funny, with that bleak comedy deliberately interwoven to relieve the tension."
One major aspect of the play's revival that has created excitement is the casting. To play the tortured Tyrone family, Falls has assembled Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave as the parents, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the bitter Jamie, and Robert Sean Leonard as Edmund, the playwright's alter ego.
"Rarely have I seen four actors so well-suited to their roles. They're all great theater actors, capable of carrying any film, television, or theater production on their own, but they've also distinguished themselves by knowing how to step back into an ensemble," Falls says. "Another feature, which was deliberate on my part: They physically resembled each other in the way O'Neill intended."
For Brian Dennehy, portraying the Tyrone patriarch "is a dream come true," he says. In 1999, Mr. Dennehy won a Tony for his performance as Willie Loman in Miller's "Death of a Salesman," also helmed by Falls.
"It's remarkable. Willie Loman was someone who never did achieve the American dream, but never stopped believing in it," says Dennehy. "James Tyrone did achieve it, but he gave up on that dream."
Dennehy is bringing out a side of James Tyrone that rarely receives attention. "There is a real, romantic love between James and Mary," he says. "It's a very important part of that relationship, because even when the physical side of a relationship has long since faded, that original feeling, that romantic feeling, that's still there."
He credits Ms. Redgrave with generating the memory of what James fell in love with. That connection between Dennehy and Redgrave informs the disappointment and fuels the rage that erupts when James learns his wife's addiction has returned.
"O'Neill was a student of Freud," Dennehy notes, "and he was well aware of the influence a strong, nurturing mother would, or should, have and, in contrast, what it means for someone not to have that."
Dennehy says that may have subconsciously driven the playwright to mine his personal feelings tied to his own real-life story, the basis for much of the play's plot. O'Neill, born in 1888 and raised in Connecticut, suffered from tuberculosis and was cured. His mother was addicted to morphine, but in the last years of her life she overcame the addiction. Other aspects of the play, from his older brother's debauchery to his own adventures at sea, were drawn from his early years.
Dennehy says he can understand what motivated his character and, by extension, O'Neill's real father, to be so tightfisted with a dollar. His miserliness relates to both of the play's major events: Mary's addiction is traced back to James's unwillingness to pay for a good doctor for her when their baby died. James also seems reluctant to arrange for the best, and most costly, institutional care for Edmund.
"James was scarred by early poverty," Dennehy says. "He faced the lure of finding a source of steady income, repeating the same performance thousands of times to ensure an income he could rely on. In today's terms, it's like an opera singer who has a certain number of key roles in his repertoire that he keeps performing."
For Dennehy, this acting opportunity furthers his drive to create a body of stage work he can be proud of. Audiences in New York and Chicago have seen him in revivals of many classic plays, while others know him for his work in films such as "Presumed Innocent," and "Rambo." "To me, there's nothing better than working in a great play," he says.
For Falls, he says, "I'm particularly proud of the number of young people who don't know the play, come to it, and are completely knocked out by it."
He credits Hoffman and Leonard with providing the lure that attracts under-30 audience members. "It goes against what we're told about young people, that they can only be made to go to theater if it imitates television or film, filled with fast-cutting ... images. This is a four-hour play with lots of dialogue. And they're loving it."