Before donning Victorian garb once again as Ebenezer Scrooge for the annual “ghost story of Christmas,” A Christmas Carol at Ford’s Theatre, Edward Gero has unfinished business in Dublin. The Irish city is the setting for Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, currently wrapping up a run at Round House Theatre in Bethesda.
This is not Gero’s first turn in a McPherson piece. In 2007, he appeared in Shining City at Studio Theatre, playing a grief-stricken and haunted husband of a woman who dies in a tragic accident. This time, Gero is Tommy, a down on his luck Dubliner who befriends a prostitute in worse shape than he is. McPherson weaves a tale that hearkens back to the quest tales from ancient mythology, as Gero sees it.
This veteran actor also returns to Round House for just the third time (he previously played the title role in Nixon’s Nixon (2008) and he portrayed Mozart’s rival, Salieri, in their production of Amadeus (2010.)
We began with his character.
Jeff Walker: Describe Tommy for us.
Edward Gero: Tommy is a middle-aged guy, down on the socio-economic scale, separated from his wife and three children, living in a room in his uncle’s house, very much down and out. He’s an Everyman type of guy.
As the play begins, Tommy has to help someone in distress, forcing him to become a good Samaritan, correct?
Whether he’s supposed to become a good Samaritan or whether he’s a good Samaritan at the core of his character, is debatable. Tommy says himself, no matter what you do, everything falls apart. Even though he has good intentions, his instinct is to care for somebody in distress and that launches him on this path. And no good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.
Conor McPherson often blends down to earth characters with layers of complexity and vivid language. Tell us about this particular play.
It is a bit of a parable. All five characters are broken, in some regard – physically as well as spiritually – which speaks to McPherson’s plays. He always has this sort of mystical context. In Shining City, a character thinks he sees visions of his wife after she’s been killed. In The Seafarer, you have a retelling of an old Dublin myth that on Christmas Eve, the devil comes to play cards with somebody. Like those plays and others, The Night Alive operates not just on a quotidian level but also on an epic level. In Tommy, you have this man who is spiritually in distress who finds something in the act of caring that illuminates his life in spite of the bad things that happen in his life.
It’s right in Conor McPherson’s wheelhouse. In this play, it’s less obvious, I think. It keeps striking me how beautifully underwritten this play is. It works as a parable but it also works as an allegory. The ending is somewhat ambiguous and I think audiences get to take out of it what they see and they can interpret this play on several levels.
It’s been written this is a nativity play without the infant Jesus.
They talk about the Three Wise Men in the play, with Tommy, the uncle, and Doc. The uncle, who is the man upstairs, is in some ways very caring and in other ways very judgmental given all these quasi-religious going through. And there’s Doc, who is mentally disabled but has these dreams and speaks things that aren’t rational. He is also into physics and black holes, and uses scientific language that questions what are we doing here and what’s the point of all this? And that’s what the play is really about.
I had the pleasure of meeting Conor McPherson on the opening night of Shining City that I did a couple of years ago. I asked him how a country the size of Ireland, with only four million people has created these literary giants. Other than the Jameson, what the heck are you guys drinking over there? McPherson turned and answered, “Catholic guilt.”
You are known for playing a range of characters, particularly historical icons – recently Justice Scalia in The Originalist, the artist Mark Rothko in Red – as well as Shakespearean characters, and even Scrooge. As an actor is your approach different for an Everyman-type of guy like in this play?
It is different. With Justice Scalia, there was a challenge there playing a living person who has a remarkable legacy and there is a certain amount of rigor with a character like that. Mark Rothko was similar, a large character, steeped in history. Neither of those gentlemen, and I would say Scrooge as well, are certainly not vulnerable. In this play, McPherson certainly allows for the rigor of his extraordinary language that sounds like everyday speech but is really quite poetic. And the character of Tommy affords me as an actor to reveal the emotional and vulnerable side that you don’t get in a Rothko or a Scalia or a Scrooge. He is sturdy in his background, where he’s a scrapper. There is also a level of emotional availability that is part of McPherson’s work; his characters are fractured and fragile.
You had not worked with director Ryan Rillette until this production?
No. I have been getting to know Ryan over the course of the last year and a half, we’ve played golf together and we talked about projects. I had not worked with him but I had seen some of my students who have worked there and with him. I have really like what they have been doing over there at Round House in terms of the programming and the ensemble work.
And how was this process?
We had three weeks to rehearse, which was a challenge, with a lot of words to learn. Once we were in previews, we could really take the play off of the page, becoming more aware of the rhythms we’re creating together. The ensemble work is really quite wonderful. During that time, we debriefed every night, we had notes every night – about listening, how we could add to the dynamics of the piece. In very short order, we managed to find a strong trust among ourselves. It’s like we’re not performing, in a way, but the event is happening amongst ourselves. That’s rare; it’s hard to achieve. I think we achieved this partly due to what Ryan Rillette does very well, attracting these terrific artists to do really great, challenging, ensemble plays. This was one of the reasons I wanted to come back to Round House.
What draws you to characters and plays that you do?
I like characters that have a journey, that come with a struggle, and end up with some kind of enlightenment. I have always loved the work of Joseph Campbell – on mythology and archetypes. I guess I have always been drawn to characters that operate on an archetypical level, in vigorous stories about transformation, and how these characters represent all of us, like Tommy represents all of us. Even late in life, in his middle age, Tommy ends up on a quest. Along his way everything that can possibly go wrong goes wrong. What we see he learns in the process is a huge part of the play. And with the audiences, we have people responding differently to the end of the quest, the end of the play. We’re not going to talk about what we think the play is about, of course. The journey is to see how people respond. I also like pieces that have great lessons hidden in plain sight. And I would say McPherson is one of the best, living playwrights we have now doing this kind of work.
What else might surprise audiences who see The Night Alive?
The juxtaposition of the comedy and the poignancy of the play and how the audience is likely to get involved with these characters at their tempo in everyday life. The whole thing sneaks up on you. Before you know it the whole thing is spinning. I think it has a sense of velocity to it and by the end it has you asking , ‘What do I take away from this experience?’ And the answer may be different for each person.