Empire state of mind

Local actress takes her talents to New York City for a role in an epic drama with Northern California roots

Tara Sissom (right), as Pearl in<i> The Iceman Cometh </i>in 2012.

Tara Sissom (right), as Pearl in The Iceman Cometh in 2012.

Photo courtesy of the Goodman Theatre

A familiar figure on the B Street Theatre stage is heading to New York this month.

She’s actress Tara Sissom, who spent the holiday season performing as a socially forward, ukulele-plucking factory girl—working in a Southern textile mill, and dreaming of Nashville stardom—in B Street Theatre’s Spinning Into Light.

Next up for Sissom: the role of Pearl in the monumental Eugene O’Neill drama The Iceman Cometh, which has a February to March run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, a prestigious and historic theater. It’s a reunion of the highly-praised 2012 production in Chicago by the Goodman Theatre, and also stars Tony Award-winner Nathan Lane. There’s a possibility that Iceman may transition to a Broadway theater following the BAM run.

The character Pearl is a tart, looking for her next customer in a cheap saloon; her personality is typically described as fun-loving and boisterous. The New York Times, reviewing the Chicago production, praised Sissom’s “winning vibrancy.” Pearl shares traits with several cheeky characters-at-risk we’ve seen Sissom portray here—like an exotic dancer wiggling in a Plexiglas cage in Make Someone Happy (2007) and a cheerful-but-volatile recovering druggie trying to rebuild her life in the suburbs in Detroit (2013), to name but two.

Sissom started at B Street as an intern in 2007. Producing artistic director Buck Busfield recruited her from Elon University in North Carolina. (Small Southern colleges have been a frequent source of B Street interns). The following year, Sissom joined the Actor’s Equity Association, and now she divides her time between Sacramento and Chicago, where she is associated with the New Colony Theater.

The Iceman Cometh is a huge project: The play runs four hours and 45 minutes, includes three intermissions and has 18 roles. And it’s bleak. Moody losers chat and drink themselves numb in a dismal saloon, dreaming of a better life which will never materialize. It’s a tragic tale of self-deception and slow self-destruction.

The play is commonly revered as one of O’Neill’s greatest. But most people have never seen it, owing to the script’s uncommon length, the dark territory it explores and the number of actors required. It’s mounted in big cities occasionally and productions in a city like Sacramento are as rare as hen’s teeth.

Many people are unaware that The Iceman Cometh was written in a house about an hour southwest from Sacramento, in Danville. O’Neill was already famous at the time, having been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1920, 1922 and 1928; and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936. In 1937, O’Neill took some of that prize money and bought 158 acres in Danville (a sleepy, largely rural outermost suburb at the time). There, he and wife Carlotta built a dream home called Tao House, furnished with Chinese and pseudo-Chinese gear from Gump’s in San Francisco.

O’Neill wanted a retreat where he could concentrate on what he felt would be his greatest plays. At Tao House, he completed The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the scripts for which he is now best remembered.

O’Neill wasn’t sure audiences were ready for these intense and very personal works. The Iceman Cometh was finished in 1939, but wasn’t staged or published until 1946. Long Day’s Journey was finished in 1942 but premiered in 1956, after O’Neill’s passing.

Financial setbacks and wartime gas rationing forced the ailing O’Neill to sell Tao House in 1943. When he left, he had his wife burn several unfinished manuscripts. He never wrote another play. Tao House is now a literary shrine, open to the public as part of the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. Visitors can take a house tour (reservations only) and stand in the study where The Iceman Cometh was written.