WATERTOWN - A cardboard cutout of Eugene O’Neill watches from a corner of the cluttered rehearsal room as Boston actor Lewis D. Wheeler curls up on the floor, playing a character consumed by alcohol and sorrow in the final act of the playwright’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’’
But another presence hovers over the New Repertory Theatre production of O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece about a theatrical family, which begins performances Sunday at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, directed by Scott Edmiston.
Wheeler’s father, David, a director and a huge figure in the history of Boston theater, died Jan. 4 at age 86. At the beginning of his career, he was an assistant director on the 1956 American premiere of “Long Day’s Journey,’’ a production that had its first performances at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston that fall before moving to New Haven and Broadway.
The connections between father, son, and play are so emotional that Lewis Wheeler feared they might derail his performance.
“It was definitely something I was worried about,’’ he says. “I told Scott before rehearsal started that this was either the best time for me to do this play or the worst time for me to do this play, or maybe both.’’
Ultimately, he says, it has been good, even strangely therapeutic. But not easy. Several times during a post-rehearsal lunch, the genial 42-year-old suddenly falls silent for a moment or two to grapple with his feelings.
“It’s a little bit heartbreaking for me, because when I auditioned for this last summer, my dad was very excited, of course, and encouraged me, and I even worked on the scene with him. And then when I got it, he was just ecstatic,’’ says Wheeler, an only child. “So that is particularly kind of painful, that he is not here to see it, because he was really proud of me.’’
“I was so close to my dad growing up, he was like my brother, really,’’ he adds, “because we shared so much, and then the theater stuff, too, so it was particularly hard to lose him.’’
When Edmiston first gathered the New Rep cast together for dinner last fall, there was talk of bringing David Wheeler in to share stories about the original production. “I was like, ‘Absolutely, he’s got a lot to tell,’ ’’ his son says. “And we were never able to do that, and that’s painful.’’
Here is one story: It was not until the 1990s that the director of the original production, José Quintero, then very ill, finally thanked David Wheeler for solving a key problem in the character of Mary Tyrone, Lewis Wheeler recalls. “My dad was touched that he remembered that and thanked him, but at the same time it was like, ‘Why didn’t you thank me earlier?’ ’’ he says, laughing.
Although David Wheeler had health issues, his death from respiratory and heart failure was a surprise. His son says he was on the upswing after a difficult period following a broken hip last year.
“We got through that,’’ he says, his voice breaking. “I used to encourage him by saying, ‘Hey, Dad, we’re going to do ‘Long Day’s Journey’ in the spring.’ I’d say it often to keep his spirits up.’’
A couple of years ago, David Wheeler proposed a production of “Long Day’s Journey’’ at another Boston company, with Lewis in a different role. It never came to fruition.
As a founder and artistic director of the Theatre Company of Boston in the 1960s and ’70s, David Wheeler worked with Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Stockard Channing, Blythe Danner, Jon Voight, and Robert Duvall. At Harvard University, his students included Matt Damon. He was a resident director at the American Repertory Theater in the 1980s and ’90s. Last year, in the spring, he directed “The Book of Grace’’ at Company One, which turned out to be his last production. Lewis served as his assistant director, not for the first time.
“I feel like I really understood his work and his psychological approach to things,’’ he says. “I learned from him over the many years I was able to work with him and watch his work, and I was lucky enough to be able to help him a little bit in the past couple of years.’’
In “Long Day’s Journey,’’ Wheeler plays Jamie Tyrone, a successful but dissipated actor in his 30s who battles with his aging father James (Will Lyman), also a successful actor but bitter about his circumscribed career. His mother, Mary Cavan Tyrone (Karen MacDonald), is sinking into morphine addiction. And his younger brother, Edmund (Nicholas Dillenburg), awaits a diagnosis of a condition that may be tuberculosis.
“It’s three hours, it goes to the depths of everyone’s humanity, everyone’s stripped bare, and at the end everything’s sort of destroyed and demolished, and yet there’s some kind of resolution,’’ Wheeler says.
Not that the production is a grim enterprise.
“We do laugh a lot in rehearsal,’’ says Edmiston, who bought that O’Neill cutout on the Internet. “Because the material is so emotionally and psychologically intense, and it requires a lot of pain to bring it to life. . . . It’s a way to cope with carrying the mantle of this play and the pain these characters are going through.’’
For Wheeler, the play is only one item on a to-do list that also includes helping his mother, Bronia. The longtime family home in Weston holds a half-century of his father’s memorabilia and papers, much of which must be organized for the archives at Boston University. He is also helping to organize a major May 14 memorial for his father in the Loeb Drama Center at the ART.
There’s an echo of his father, too, in another of Wheeler’s activities: cofounding the new Harbor Stage Company, which is gearing up for its first season on Cape Cod. All six principals had worked at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and decided to go their own way after changes in that company’s leadership last year. Getting the season going will take an increasing amount of his time.
In the meantime, Wheeler says he doesn’t do anything special to cope. Talk to his girlfriend. Talk to his therapist. Keep coming to rehearsal.
Dealing with the O’Neill cutout is easier.
“When we did our first run-through, I think Lewis blindfolded him,’’ Edmiston says with a laugh, “in case somebody made a mistake.’’