HOUSTON -- "Am I playing Eugene O'Neill or am I playing Edmund Tyrone?" wondered Rick Stear. He has a week extra to decide: the Alley Theatre's revival of O'Neill's searing autobiographical masterpiece, originally set to close Mar. 29, has been extended through April 5.
Long Day's Journey into Night was completed in March 1941. Because it was almost entirely 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 temptations; 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.
Actually, Stear's question is rhetorical. "I think I'm playing Edmund," Stear explained. "We did a lot of research, reading biographies and critical studies. And we talked a lot in rehearsal about which events in O'Neill's life were incorporated in the text, and it turns out nearly 100% of the script is true. But what it comes down to is this: we're doing a play." Consequently, Stear feels he includes what he knows of Eugene O'Neill into his performance while nonetheless creating a character outside of the documentation.
"Edmund is an enigma. You can't read his mind. He's a little unpredictable with his wit, his cynicism, his sensitivity."
When told that such traits apply to all the Tyrones, Stear replied that what sets Edmund apart is how much the brooder he is. Which is something Stear himself has little need to be: a brooder. A recent graduate from the North Carolina School of the Arts, Stear quickly landed a featured role Off-Broadway last fall in A Madhouse in Goa. And he starred in Romeo and Juliet at Hartford Stage, directed by Mark Lamos.
And now a gig at the Alley, the Tony Award-winning regional theater. And not just any gig, but the meaty role of Edmund Tyrone. Under the direction of Michael Wilson, the newly appointed artistic director of Hartford Stage. And part of an ensemble whose morphine-addicted Mary Tyrone is being played by Ellen Burstyn, winner of a Tony Award for Same Time, Next Year and an Academy Award for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and whose flawed patriarch James Tyrone is being played by David Selby, best known for television's Dark Shadows and Falcon Crest and on Broadway in The Heiress, Sticks and Bones, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, and Gandhi.
All this, and Stear is just 25.
"I think every actor has a list of plays they see growing up or in college in which they say, 'I have to work in this.' Long Day's Journey Into Night is one of them for me," Stear said. "In fact, it's the first play on my list. I hope it's not the last," he laughed. Nervously?
For tickets, $36 - $40, call (713) 228-8421.
-- By Peter Szatmary