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Reading the Light in 'A Long Day's Journey Into Night'

Date: May 10, 2016

Inside Natasha Katz's Tony-nominated design


We know James Tyrone is happy because the light around him changes. Telling his son Edmund about the time Edwin Booth -- the great actor! -- praised his talents, he gets so lost in the story that he rises from his chair in his dilapidated summer home. He moves to the front of the stage and basks in the days he had promise.

For the length of that speech, the evening recedes. The men are framed by a golden aura that partially comes from a table lamp and a chandelier, but also emanates from somewhere else. From the walls, maybe. From the air. In this revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night -- which the Roundabout is presenting on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre -- a speech like Tyrone's shifts the color of the world.

That's because of Natasha Katz, whose lighting design for this production just earned a Tony Award nomination (her thirteenth overall, including five wins). "In my head, it's memory light around him and around Edmund," she says. "It has that comfort and warmth and womblike quality, but the rest of the room is falling off into complete shadow."

Warmth is especially striking in O'Neill's 1942 masterpiece, which charts the day the Tyrone family collapses. Mary, the matriarch, has just come home from treatment for her morphine addiction, but she quickly starts using again, which goads her family's bitterness, blame, and broken hearts. It's poignant, then, when James (Gabriel Byrne) remembers his early success. It's also a testament to O'Neill's writing, which evokes love and  hope as nimbly as anger and regret.

Katz wants her lighting to evoke all those points of view, which is why the glow of Tyrone's memory doesn't completely banish the gloom. "It's like emotional editing," she says. "There might be five people on stage, but the emotional point of view [of the light] might be coming from one of them."

Notice what happens, for instance, when Mary (Jessica Lange) takes control of the story. "Very often, Jessica's face falls into complete shadow," Katz says. "She's trying to hide herself all the time from her family."


But Katz's design doesn't only reflect individual characters. Sometimes, it makes statements about the entire show. "The play starts extremely optimistically from a lighting point of view," she says. "It's bright. It's sunny. It's a new day. But then it gets more and more skeletal as the evening goes on. As everything starts to fall apart, the corners of the room are lit less. There are more shadows. They walk into more shadows."

In other words, the light in this production creates a constant conversation. It represents both the shifting emotions of the characters and the volatile world they live in. If we notice how the light changes, then we get insight on everything else.

"I do believe that lighting has to have an arc from the beginning of the piece to the end of the piece," Katz says. "That's always in the back of my head: Where are we starting, and where are we ending up? Lighting has to tell that story in order to bring the [show] to visual life for the audience."


Follow Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo: Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne.

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