"And trust me, as you get older, those colors are harder to sustain," says Bruce Nelson as Mark Rothko in early rehearsals for Red, the play about the famous abstract expressionist which opened at Everyman Theatre this week. "The palette fades and we race to catch it before it's gone."

 

He's talking to Eric Berryman, who plays Ken, an assistant Rothko hires while he is painting murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in John Logan's play. He sounds almost angry.

"What I'm wondering is: Is that how he should be saying that?" says Donald Hicken, the play's director.

They're rehearsing a scene where the two men argue over the meaning of black, in painting-specifically Rothko's-and in life. In order to pull the scene off, both the actors and the director need to understand not only what their characters are saying, but what Rothko's blacks feel like. Surrounding them are a number of fake Rothkos with the familiar, thrumming rectangles of vibrant color (the company is contractually required to destroy them after the production ). Still, the three men will occasionally consult images of Rothko paintings on the director's desk. "See," says Hicken flipping through pages. "It's not just black."

Though Nelson, 2012's "Best Actor," is generally a fan of more representational styles of art, he says that he, Hicken, and Berryman have become Rothko aficionados together, studying both his work and his character. "In getting to know Rothko and researching him and understanding where his paintings come from, I now have a much deeper appreciation for those fuzzy rectangles that, on the surface, could be quickly judged and dismissed," the actor said in an interview before the rehearsal. "But to sit there with them as we did at the Phillips-we took a field trip to the Phillips Gallery in D.C. that has a Rothko room-over a period of time, you see the movement, you see the pulse that he's talking about. But it takes patience. It takes you opening yourself up and digging in to the relationship, which is nicely symbolic or parallels how you would relate to anything, either a surface quick glance or a willingness to stop and take time to really look."

They try the scene again, as if applying another coat of paint, but this time Nelson says his lines not as if he has been challenged (yet), but in a more wistfully reflective manner. One can feel the emotion in his words.

"The timing of the play is pretty perfect," Nelson admits. "I'm a middle-aged man, I'm a little younger than Rothko was at this age during this play. He's asking some very big questions of his paintings, always, like he's waiting for an impulse to come to him, and then trusting that impulse to make something happen on the canvas. So you could argue that Red is a perfect example of Bruce being given a palette, trusting instincts and impulses and putting them out there and seeing how they're going to land. As an actor, this play is the perfect way to again trust my creative impulse."

In getting to know Rothko, whose character he began to work on in the off hours while he was playing Groucho Marx in Center Stage's Animal Crackers, Nelson says he also gets to know further facets of himself. "It is an unending figuring me out," he says. "It's like when Whitman says, 'We contain multitudes.'"

Nelson attributes the origins of his career to growing up as "a gay man in a household full of straight people in the early '70s and '80s." But in drama class in high school, he felt that he everyone was as much a misfit as he was, that "we connected in our disconnectedness."

The connection with his colleagues at Everyman is obvious as he, Hicken, and Berryman laugh and debate the nuance of each line. In the play, Berryman's character, Ken, helps Rothko see that it's selling out to paint murals for the Four Seasons.

"The assistant is representative of reality, the slap of it," Nelson says. "I think Rothko is the first one to admit that he goes into a hermetically sealed place in his studio and sits with the paintings and considers them and waits for the impulse and then paints. And his world for the most part is narrow, and the world on the outside comes in in the form of Ken. And the more the play goes on, the more Ken gets his sort of legs under him and is able to say, 'Reality is saying something a lot different, reality is saying soup cans and Jasper Johns flags, that's what reality is now.' And I think Rothko has to finally admit that what is going on in the real world is what he has preached. 'The child must banish the father, respect him, kill him.'"

This last bit is a line from the play and you can almost hear Nelson's intonation change as he says it. Rothko committed suicide, and the play is very much about mortality, value, and worth. "Are you really scared of black?" Ken asks.

"No, "I'm really scared of the absence of light," Rothko answers.

"Like going blind."

"Like going dead."

Rothko and Ken go on to argue within the play about whether Rothko's interpretation of the color black is sentimental, just as Nelson and Berryman and Hicken argue about the shades of the words the actors should employ in order to arrive at the meaning. Watching them, it becomes clear that these are artists interpreting artists, and it is far more intense and visceral and alive than most conversations concerning art. To these three men, Rothko really matters.

"OK, let's try again," Hicken says.

Red runs at the Everyman Theatre until Dec. 8. For More information, visit Everymantheatre.org.