PORTLAND, Ore. — William Hurt, dressed in sweats and a fleece vest, mounts his mountain bike to ride back to his rented house, blending in with the rest of Portland's nighttime cyclers.
You probably wouldn't expect to find the Academy Award winning actor in a play staged by a local not-for-profit theater group. But he's here, playing a befuddled Canadian farmer in "The Drawer Boy" at Portland's Artists Repertory Theatre.
It's a homecoming of sorts for the 54-year-old Hurt, famous for his roles in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Big Chill" and "The Accidental Tourist." His mother grew up in eastern Oregon's Harney County, where Hurt now owns a house. And Hurt appeared nearly 30 years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Hurt's work here is also a reconnection with his theatrical roots.
"What I do represents a lot to me, and how I do it," says Hurt, who has built a reputation as an intense, cerebral actor. "That's the eloquence you have (as a person)."
"The Drawer Boy," by Toronto playwright Michael Healy, explores the friendship between Morgan and Angus, two childhood buddies who went off to World War II, met a pair of young Englishwomen and returned to Canada after Angus was injured.
In the play, directed by Beth Harper, a naive young actor, Miles, shows up at the farmhouse where Morgan and Angus are living 30 years after the war. Secrets are revealed, and the delicate balance of truth and deception is upset.
As Angus, Hurt is a wounded bear, lumbering through life in a pained, muddled daze punctuated by brief moments of clarity. He's virtually unrecognizable in overalls and a bushy blond beard.
Audiences have packed the 172-seat theater every night since "The Drawer Boy" opened March 14, and Artists Repertory Theatre has added an extra week of performances plus several matinees.
Critics have praised the play and Hurt's work. "His performance is brilliant for its depth and exactitude and the way it meshes with the passions of the play itself," Bob Hicks wrote in The Oregonian newspaper.
"(Hurt's) achievement is an advertisement for understatement, honesty and, perhaps more important, craft," wrote Steffen Silvis, a reviewer for Willamette Week. "It's a performance demanding to be studied."
They've also commended Hurt's friend, A.R.T. artistic director Allen Nause, who plays the crusty yet caring Morgan. Their relationship stretches over three decades.
Hurt first came to Oregon in 1975, after taking time off from a troubled second year at New York City's Juilliard School. Heading west on his motorcycle, he received an offer to join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for half a season in the tiny southern city of Ashland.
That's where Hurt met Nause.
The two became friends, appearing together in William Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Part One" and filling in as spear carriers in "Romeo and Juliet."
"(Hurt) had had a couple of rehearsals, so he just shoved me around on stage," Nause says with a chuckle.
Hurt stayed on for the rest of the season — starring as Edmund in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" — then returned to New York. Nause went north to work at regional theaters. The two reconnected in Portland a couple of years ago, when Hurt happened to see A.R.T.'s production of Lynn Nottage's "Crumbs From the Table of Joy." They agreed to find a project.
Nause says Hurt is essentially unchanged since their days together at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
"He's still a very dedicated, uncompromising artist," Nause says. "That's refreshing to me."
Patrick Wohlmut, who plays Miles, says Nause and Hurt come across as "actors that really, really enjoy their work."
"They both get into the nitty-gritty detail of what they're approaching," says Wohlmut, a playwright who is studying English at Portland State University.
Hurt says he has enjoyed the opportunity to get back to the basics of theater — interaction, exploration and preparation. The three-man cast spent six weeks rehearsing for the play, which runs through Sunday.
"Six weeks is a line you draw in the sand," Hurt says, but even that's not enough. "It's always time, time, time. Money, money, money."
Hurt laments what he sees as the fall of American theater to commercial interests and corporate control.
"A lot of active, innovational theater has perished in the last two and a half decades," he says. "The general condition of actors is so cowed, so hungry for work and approval, so insecure that that kind of fundamental social parenting ... is just falling away."
Hurt, who made his film debut in 1980's "Altered States," has long split his career between stage and screen. He garnered Oscar nominations for his roles in "Broadcast News" and "Children of a Lesser God" and won the best actor prize for "Kiss of the Spider Woman."
In New York, Hurt was a member of the critically acclaimed Circle Repertory Company for 12 years, appearing in "Hamlet," "Lulu," "Richard II," "Fifth of July" and "My Life," for which he won an Obie award. Hurt received a Tony nomination in 1985 on Broadway for "Hurlyburly."
He also starred in "Henry V" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the New York Shakespeare Festival.
Portland ranks among Hurt's favorite cities. It's a place where he can soak up art, culture and the great outdoors while maintaining a low profile, he says. He's an avid golfer, and took up bicycling four or five years ago. Western Oregon's rainy season doesn't seem to bother him.
"I don't mind rain. Seventy percent of our bodies are made of it," he says with a laugh.
But even in Portland, Hurt acknowledges, he's the elephant in the living room.
"I don't know if I made a mistake, being a movie star," he says. He struggles to find places where he can concentrate on acting, not crowds.
"It's a problem — fame."