NEW YORK >> For her one day off this week playing a drug-addled mother in the Broadway revival of the monumental "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Jessica Lange had a plan. She wanted to walk in the spring sunshine.
"What a gorgeous day, huh?" she asked Monday over lemon-ginger tea at a downtown cafe. "I was thinking about this morning when I woke up: I long to hear birds. I long for the silence and the birds."
That's understandable, seeing as Lange has thrown herself into portraying Eugene O'Neill's demented heroine, Mary Tyrone, a morphine addict with gnarled hands who is caught in a dreamlike web of the past.
"I think it's the most extraordinary American play ever written," she said. "I'm so exhausted from this. I don't know if it's age or what it is. But I feel like I have never worked as hard in my entire life."
Lange has only herself to blame. After all, she played the same part in London 16 years ago. "I have no excuse," she acknowledged. "But it's like pregnancy: You forget from one to another."
The actress, who turned 67 this week, on this sun-splashed day is gorgeous and chic in black tuxedo pants and jacket, sunglasses and flats. Her straight blond hair frames her fair face and she wears a minimum of makeup.
Lange, who in the movies has played an array of fascinating women, from Patsy Cline to Frances Farmer to the object of King Kong's affection, has been stingy with her stage work. But when she does it, attention must be paid.
She's played Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" and Amanda Wingfield, the domineering mother who propels "The Glass Menagerie."
"If I had to say what characters just took me to the limit, Blanche obviously would be one. But at this point in my life, Mary is so much more complete," she said.
Jonathan Kent, her director, agreed: "Jessica now is absolutely at the moment where she should be playing this part. She understands it on such a visceral level."
Lange is a two-time Academy Award winner and three-time Emmy winner who has lately connected with millennials, thanks to four seasons aboard "American Horror Story," playing a washed-up Southern belle, a freak show ringmaster, a nun and a witch.
"They were big, baroque characters. I'd never worked that way before: Never knowing where you were going with the character. You were really out there on a wing and a prayer," she said. "I never had to worry, 'Am I over-the-top?' 'Am I doing too much?'"
Lange can thank that show's mastermind, Ryan Murphy, for her new gig. They had been talking about how much she wanted to do "Long Day's Journey" again and he helped get the rights. She thinks the passing of 16 years make her Mary more poignant.
"At this point in my life, there's much more loss. There's much more things falling away. So coming back to it, it feels richer and deeper. And also at this point in my life I have fewer distractions. I mean, I don't have children at home any more. I don't have a partner," she says.
Joining Lange at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway is Gabriel Byrne playing her husband, and both Michael Shannon and John Gallagher Jr. as her unravelling sons. But it is work that takes its toll on her.
"I said to somebody the other day: 'I go to the theater. I play this incredibly lonely woman and I come back to my apartment and I am this incredibly lonely woman.' It's kind of poetic justice," she says, laughing.
And with that, it's back out into the warmth and sunshine.
"I'm going to walk, get outside. You begin to feel a little bit like a mole," she says, heading for the door.