HOUSTON -- "So much of what Eugene O'Neill does in Long Day's Journey into Night is put this family into opposing camps, having some of them join forces for a moment against another, then just as abruptly turn on each other in new alliances," reflected David Selby as he settles into his portrayal of the flawed patriarch James Tyrone in a revival of O'Neill's searing masterpiece at the Alley Theatre. Having opened February 25, Long Day's Journey into Night continues at Houston's Tony Award-winning regional theater through Mar. 29.
Though best known for his television work on Dark Shadows and Falcon Crest, and while having been in such movies as White Squall and Rich and Famous, Selby is an accomplished stage performer. He has appeared on Broadway in The Heiress, Sticks and Bones, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, and Gandhi. Off-Broadway he's starred in The Unseen Hand and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Regional work includes the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Washington Theatre, and Goodman Theatre.
Featured with Selby in Long Day's Journey into Night as James Tyrone's wife, the morphine-addicted Mary, is Ellen Burstyn, who won a Tony Award for Same Time, Next Year and an Academy Award for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
Long Day's Journey into Night was completed in March 1941. Because it was largely autobiographical, O'Neill stipulated that it shouldn't be produced until at least 25 years after his death. His widow, however, allowed the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre to premiere it in 1956, three years after he died. A slow descent into darkness, the play depicts O'Neill's tortured family in 1912, when the playwright-to-be was a young man: James Tyrone, the resounding patriarch, a gifted, handsome actor whose love of money turned him second-rate; Mary, the looming mother, who battles psychic demons and other addictions; Jamie, the bitter older child, an alcoholic ne'er-do-well; and Edmund, the consumptive stand-in for O'Neill fearing spiritual and literal decay.
"The play is full of repetitions," Selby explained, "but O'Neill writes this way for a distinct purpose: how the past and the present collide, constantly, varyingly. Part of our challenge is to figure out how to recite these similar themes and same words, trying to find the right rhythms, the right stops, the right tones." The search is ongoing: director Michael Wilson is continuing to rehearse his cast during the show's run. "The production works," Selby elaborated, "but a month wasn't enough time as a rehearsal period. So what we've done as we continue to discover shading is compensate by raising intensity." To help prepare himself, Selby read O'Neill's selected letters, some biographies, and other critical assessments. "I also studied the script in great detail before I got here, which I rarely do." What Selby didn't do, however, was call on his friend Jason Robards, Jr., who portrayed James Tyrone to much acclaim some years ago (other celebrated James Tyrones include Fredric March, Ralph Richardson, and Jack Lemmon). Selby didn't need to add any other ghosts to the production; the character Mary Tyrone haunts things more than enough.
To Selby, the theme of Long Day's Journey into Night is love despite inadequacies. "James is overwhelmingly devoted to Mary. But he couldn't break away from his mean upbringing. He's an ordinary man who has a little bit of theatricality to him. With Mary and with the children, he tries but doesn't know how, and he gets in his own way, as do they." Ultimately, Selby sees James as one who bucks up himself and others, despite everything, because of everything.
Long Day's Journey into Night continues at the Alley Theatre in Houston through Mar. 29. For tickets, $36-$40, call (713) 228-84211
-- By Peter Szatmary