Sign of the Times

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Aidan Quinn returns to the New York stage, co-starring in Richard Nelson's opportune Conversations in Tusculum.
Aidan Quinn
Aidan Quinn Photo by Michal Daniel

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Actor Aidan Quinn is sleeping well these days. And all it took was a return to the theatre for the first time in 20 years.

"This is real work," the 49-year-old film star says of his new job playing Brutus, "the noblest Roman of them all," in Richard Nelson's new play at the Public Theater, Conversations in Tusculum. "We don't have a clue how spoiled we are doing movies. If you have the lead in a television drama, that's hard work. And I've done that. But theatre, there's nothing like it, when you have a lead role with a lot of language and a lot of delicate things to work out. I tell you, I don't sleep eight hours a night ever. But now I sleep eight hours a night every night. I'm physically and mentally tired."

Now, to clarify, Quinn has stepped on a stage from time to time in the past couple decades. He's taken part in The Exonerated, the touring docudrama about wrongly accused death row convicts, in multiple cities; and he played against Al Pacino in one of the actor's many unofficial go-rounds with Oscar Wilde's Salome. But Tusculum is his first foray "in an ambulatory stage production, where I actually have to get up and move" since his glory days in the mid-to-late '80s when he played Hamlet in Chicago, Stanley Kowalski on Broadway and Frankie in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind.

Aidan Quin with Brian Dennehy in Conversations in Tusculum
photo by Michal Daniel

Films, television, but primarily the care of his now-18-year-old autistic daughter have made it difficult to commit to a lengthy stage run. But he fell for Nelson's words upon reading Tusculum and decided it would be worth the effort. The play gathers some of the best American stage actors to play the biggies of Roman history — Brian Dennehy is Cicero, Joe Grifasi portrays Syrus, Gloria Reuben plays Porcia, David Strathairn is Cassius and Maria Tucci depicts Servilia. Together they talk and worry about what's happening to their beloved republic and what to do about the power-hungry, democracy-flouting warmonger who's heading it. They're talking about Julius Caesar, of course, but you'd be forgiven if this line from the press notes — "The country you love and the values it represents are being destroyed by a misguided leader" — reminds you of another time and another nation. Quinn says the play's parallels to our time are inevitable. "They are fast and furious and they are everywhere," he says with a laugh. "Their [the Romans'] government was 450 years old, so it was more sacred to them than our feelings about the Constitution."

Quinn has been reading a lot of Roman histories since he got the part, but that doesn't mean he's preparing himself to appear in a living documentary. "It helps us a lot, doing the research, but then we have to forget it, because the play's the thing. Richard's play has its own history."

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