Experience the best teacher for character actor

Carol Stream native Kevin Kenneally has been performing in Chicago more or less continuously since the early 1980s. But he did not consistently get meatier parts until he passed 40.

He credits this increase in the amount of work he gets to “growing into the character actor that I am.”

It wasn't always so easy for Kenneally, who appears in Polarity Ensemble Theatre's production of “Long Day's Journey into Night,” which runs through Dec. 5.

Right out of college, he auditioned for a local agent. Kenneally still remembers her response. She said to him, “You aren't going to make it until you are about 40.”

Kenneally was disappointed, but not defeated. After all, theater was his life when he was a student at Glenbard North (class of 1978) and again in college at Illinois Wesleyan University (class of 1982). He even landed an apprenticeship at the Goodman Theatre right out of college.

Years of paying his dues in Chicago's non-Equity theater scene followed.

Now 50, Kenneally's current role is one of the great parts in American theater: James Tyrone, the father in Eugene O'Neill's searing semiautobiographical play, “Long Day's Journey into Night.”

The play is about an Irish-American family. The Tyrones have become prosperous thanks to the stage success of James, a once-promising actor who has spent his career performing in one role, Cyrano de Bergerac. The show and character no longer challenge Tyrone, but he continues playing the popular role because it brings in the most money.

“Some call him miserly,” Kenneally says. “He is someone who is very frugal. But so much of that is his own upbringing. We don't understand what it is like to be in desperate poverty.”

The family faces alcoholism, drug addiction and tuberculosis, all contributing to “the helplessness” James feels, Kenneally says. No wonder he is “cheaping out,” Kenneally says, not helping his drug addict wife or his sick son.

The role is a challenging one in this brilliant, nearly three-hour-long drama.

“I am learning as I go along that this play stretches different muscles than previously,” Kenneally says. “The emotional digging, the fact that I am on stage for almost two-thirds of the play. It can be exhausting.”

Kenneally said his love for theater remains strong. “I still find I don't want to do anything else,” he says. “It drives my parents crazy.”

Ÿ “Long Day's Journey into Night” runs through Dec. 5 at Polarity Ensemble Theatre in the Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell, Chicago. For tickets call (800) 838-3006 or visit