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The return of Maura Tierney

An emotional stage role is the next big challenge for the actress and Boston native

By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Maura Tierney, the Hyde Park native best known for playing the nurse-turned-doctor Abby Lockhart on the long-running TV series “ER,’’ is concerned that her acting muscles for heavy emoting may have become atrophied of late.

Tierney is rehearsing a rare revival of Jon Robin Baitz’s “Three Hotels’’ at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and she’s anxious about her ability to render the subtleties of her character: an anguished executive’s wife who has a poisoned marriage, a dead son, and a guilt-ridden conscience.

“I’m a little nervous because thematically the play is very heavy. It’s a very sad, smart, rueful piece. And I haven’t really had to communicate those kind of difficult emotions in a while to an audience. So I’m hoping I can get back in the swing of that. You know, on ‘ER,’ that’s all I did. I just did sad [expletive] all day long,’’ she says, with a laugh.

Perched on a plush sofa in a lounge at the festival’s theater complex at Williams College, amid the rolling green hills of the Berkshires, Tierney has just wrapped up rehearsals for the afternoon. She’s dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, with short auburn hair. During an hourlong chat, her dry sense of humor peeks out beneath a warm, earthy, and remarkably low-key facade. At 46, despite her fame, she displays no rampant ego and seems to take her celebrity in stride.

The two-character “Three Hotels,’’ which runs June 29-July 24, navigates a minefield of doubts and vulnerability as it explores the devolving state of affairs between a morally compromised business executive and his troubled wife.

A year and a half ago, Tierney says, tackling anything that involved frayed or explosive emotional states was exactly what she wanted to avoid. She had just been through one of the most difficult periods of her life after being diagnosed with breast cancer in mid-2009. She had a mastectomy and appeared to be in the clear. Then unexpectedly, her doctors told her she needed to undergo chemotherapy, which she says terrified her more than the cancer itself.

At the time, she was about to start a new television series, “Parenthood,’’ for which she had already filmed the pilot. Not wanting “to have that part of my life, my illness, documented on film,’’ she says, she chose to step away from the show, and Lauren Graham took over her role. Then in December 2009, her father, Joseph Tierney, a longtime Boston City Councilor and former council president, passed away after his own battle with cancer.

“I had a really bad year. It was a very rough time,’’ says Tierney, whose brother and sister live in Milton, not far from their childhood home in Boston. “My answer to a lot of things is to go to work. That’s not everybody’s answer. But it was very helpful to me.’’

Indeed, not long after she was diagnosed, she got a phone call from the renowned experimental theater company the Wooster Group, asking if she wanted to perform in a remounting of its 1983 musical “North Atlantic’’ in New York and Los Angeles. Tierney says “North Atlantic,’’ which she started rehearsing in January 2010, just after her chemo treatments wrapped up, was exactly what she needed at the time. A satiric sex farce depicting life on an aircraft carrier during the height of the Cold War, “North Atlantic’’ was an opportunity for Tierney to play the randy, hot-to-trot nurse Jane Babcock in a production whose aesthetic was rooted in physicality, precise movement, and verbal dexterity.

“I didn’t have to emote all over the place. I liked being able to work on a completely different level that was very demanding physically and mentally, but not emotionally,’’ she says. “I was able to just focus on the work, which was completely new and different for me and very exciting and liberating.’’

“And it was so great to be in a place where it truly didn’t matter what you looked like — at all. It was probably a bonus that I was bald,’’ she adds, with a laugh.

Veteran Wooster Group actress Kate Valk says that all the women in the show really bonded with each other. “And a lot of it had to do with rallying around Maura,’’ she says. “It made a sub-narrative that was really moving to me. I felt like I had a subtext that I didn’t have the last time we did the play.’’

Valk praises Tierney for her embrace of the unknown. “I’ve never met an actress who keeps herself off-balance as much as Maura does. She’s not a control freak — at all. She keeps herself off-balance until ‘Action.’ And then she’s just totally present and in touch with who she is at that moment.’’

Cancer, Tierney says, has shifted her perspective dramatically. “Every day something comes up — a new thing, or an old thing. Is there any day that goes by when I don’t think about it? No, I don’t believe so. I mean, it’s not always bad thoughts, though sometimes it is. But a lot of times it’s gratitude.’’

Since her illness, Tierney has also returned to television, where she won early acclaim in the sitcom “NewsRadio’’ and turned up in 2009 on the cable series “Rescue Me’’ as a brash, sexually voracious foil to Denis Leary. More recently, Tierney starred in the quippy courtroom procedural “The Whole Truth,’’ which was canceled by ABC after a short run last fall.

“Three Hotels’’ marks one of a handful of stage roles that Tierney has tackled in recent years, including Neil LaBute’s “Some Girl(s)’’ in 2006 and Nicky Silver’s “Three Changes’’ in 2008, both off-Broadway, and a recent production of “God of Carnage’’ in Dublin that she describes as a difficult experience in which the actors struggled from night to night.

Despite her interest in theater, Tierney has battled a sometimes crippling stage fright. While working on “Three Changes,’’ “I would be ready to make my entrance, and I would think to myself, well, the worst thing that can happen is that you just fall apart and then they’ll take you off to Bellevue, and everything will be OK,’’ she says, with a laugh. “Then one day I thought, You’re not servicing anybody here with all this [expletive] neurosis and fear. People are here to see a play. It’s not about your ego. So that helped a bit. I kind of slapped myself around.’’

Working on “North Atlantic’’ seemed to finally cure her performance anxiety, in part because of the physical feats involved. Those included climbing a 25-foot-tall ladder, hanging from the rigging, then sliding down a stage that was raked at a 45-degree angle. The first time she did it, she says, “I’ve never been more nervous in my entire life. I think it cured me in the sense that there was nothing scarier than that.’’

In “Three Hotels,’’ Tierney’s costar, Steven Weber, plays Ken, a corporate shill for a major multinational that peddles bad baby formula to third-world Africans. Weber praises Tierney’s quiet strength in the production.

“She’s not a flamboyant, showy actress. What she has in spades is this real depth, and it’s scarily still and very compelling,’’ he says. “She’s able to get across deep hurt in a really unique way. But she’s not blubbery.’’

In the play, Tierney’s character recounts a luncheon speech she delivered to other young executive wives about how to survive life in a Third World country far from the comforts of home. In the riveting monologue, both funny and pain-filled, Barbara reveals how a series of soul-scarring moral compromises have left her marriage in shambles amid a trail of broken dreams and personal loss. She desperately tries to contain the anguish bubbling below the surface and veers toward a total breakdown.

The play “manages to say a lot about the inner emotional life and loss of the characters as well as commenting on the corporate-driven world that we find ourselves in,’’ Tierney says. “Even though the play is 20 years old, it’s very resonant right now in terms of the compromised corporate culture and what that will do to a person’s soul and what it literally does to people’s lives.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com

THREE HOTELS

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, June 29-July 24. Tickets: $25-54. 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org