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Actor Bill Heck returns to the Signature Theatre Company in his darkest role yet
Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series on actors and how they create their roles
If Night is a Room hadn’t been a kind of family affair, Bill Heck might not have signed on. The actor had recently finished a yearlong stint in the Broadway revival of Cabaret and with a second baby on the way, he was mainly looking for TV and film work. Then he read Naomi Wallace’s play about an intense reunion and it "completely snagged" him. But it was the chance to work at the Signature Theatre Company again that sealed the deal.
"Signature's like family," says Heck, and he's not exaggerating. He met his wife, Maggie Lacey, when they costarred as spouses in the three-play epic The Orphans' Home Cycle at the theatre from 2009-2010. The next season, he appeared in the company's lauded revival of Angels in America, and proposed to Lacey (who wasn't in the show) at the final curtain call. "I truly love so many of the people there, so it's great to come back for its 25th anniversary and [founding artistic director] Jim Houghton's final season," he says. "I consider it my theatre home."
In Night is a Room, Heck plays Marcus, a happily married Brit with a successful teaching career, whose life is upended when his sexy, high-powered wife, Liana (Dagmara Dominczyk), arranges a meeting with his working-class birth mother, Doré (Ann Dowd) as a 40th birthday surprise. We don't see their initial get-together, but we experience its aftermath in a long, explosive and twisty scene -- the only one Heck is in. In terms of number of lines and time onstage, Marcus is the smallest part, yet he channels an amazing range of extreme emotions in just a few minutes, from passion to anguish to unbridled fury. If those sound like difficult transitions, Heck insists he gets all the support he needs from the spare but poetic text. "Naomi has an amazing depth and mode of expression," Heck says. "She's an expert storyteller. It's almost mathematical. It's this beautiful marriage of craft and seemingly spontaneous emotion that I just love."
It's impossible to explain why Marcus is in such a frantic state without spoiling the big reveal. Let's just say it's pretty dark and shocking, and it allows Wallace -- who ends her three-play Signature residency with Night is a Room -- to tackle complex themes like loyalty, love, and morality in a novel way. "Naomi is exploring what happens when you have your life together, you feel like you know what comes next, and then suddenly the bottom drop outs," Heck says. "Marcus comes into that scene knowing that shit's going to go down. So the fullness of his emotional context is in place to a large degree. And yet he still has personal discoveries and surprises within the course of that life-changing scene."
At this point, Heck is a vet at playing characters that seem to have it all together but are struggling just below the surface, like reluctant bisexual Cliff in Cabaret, closeted gay Mormon Joe in Angels in America, and wealthy recovering crack addict John in Water by the Spoonful. When asked what it is about him that lands him these roles, Heck initially makes a joke about directors wanting to "fuck with the white Midwestern guy." But the truth is he enjoys tapping into the messier aspects of life. "Exploring the extremes of the human experience engages me," he says. "If I were part of a piece that was pat and known, I'd get bored and antsy and dissatisfied. Just last night I was talking about the trope of artists needing crazy upheavals in their personal lives to achieve something special. I actually don't do that at all. I feel like stability in my life and artistry gives me a foundation from which to dig into deep and scary places. As an artist, if you're not challenging yourself then what the hell are you doing?"
Photos by T. Charles Erickson