Eddie Shields Details SpeakEasy Stage's Take on Sprawling, Gay-Themed Play 'The Inheritance'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday April 28, 2022
Originally published on April 28, 2022

"The Inheritance," a massive play in two parts by Matthew Lopez, premiered in 2018, and it's only gotten more relevant as time has passed. A (very) loose adaptation of "Howards End," E. M. Forster's novel from 1910. More inspired by Forster's novel than based upon it, "The Inheritance" is set in the years leading up to the 2016 election and that watershed moment's aftermath. The play tackles some of the day's most burning questions — questions that have only gotten hotter in the last half-decade, as the voices asking them have grown more insistent and dug in deeper.

Speakeasy Stage Company brings the Tony-winning play to Boston for the first time, with Paul Daigneault directing.

The play centers on a group of young gay men in New York City: It's a pretty specific category of experience, and yet the play manages to grasp universal themes. Eric Glass (Eddie Shields) and his playwright boyfriend, Toby Darling (Jared Reinfeldt), get engaged (in the middle of having sex, no less); marriage equality now available to gay people, and it seems as though the bad old days of legally enforced inequality and second-class citizenship are finally, definitively waning.

But events on both the national stage in the personal realm shatter that illusion of momentum and progress. On the home front, Eric is confronted by the end of a generations-long tenure in a rent-controlled apartment in one of the city's most coveted neighborhoods. (It's a witty, foundational metaphor for watching one's country slip away.) Among his neighbors are Walter (Mark H. Dold, who also plays E. M. Forster) and his billionaire life partner, Harold (Dennis Trainor Jr.).

As Walter and Eric grow close, and Eric thrives in this new, cross-generational friendship, he and Toby also interact with their large social circle, bringing a new friend, aspiring actor Adam (Mishka Yarovoy), into their ranks. As Toby's new play moves toward a Broadway debut, Adam finds himself cast in a plum role. Everything seems to be going swimmingly for this family of friends, but under the surface there are tensions at work that threaten to tear everything down.

EDGE had the chance to speak with out lead actor Eddie Shields, a veteran of a number of past Speakeasy Stage Company productions, including the LGBTQ+-themed plays "Significant Other" and "The View UpStairs." Shields gave EDGE his views on the play's prophetic immediacy, chatted about what it's like to star in such a monumental work, and explained how, thanks to COVID, the chance to be in the production nearly slipped away before coming back into his grasp.

EDGE: You've been in a number of productions with SpeakEasy Stage Company. Did they approach you for the role of Eric in "The Inheritance?"

Eddie Shields: I've worked at Speakeasy a few times in the past, and I absolutely love it. I love the team there. Paul Dagneault, the director, is so smart. He chooses really, really great plays, especially for the Boston area, and usually gets them right out of Broadway, so, oftentimes, they're the first production outside of Broadway, which is really exciting because you're introducing them to audiences who can't get to New York for whatever reason.

In terms of "The Inheritance" when they announced the season — and this was back, if I'm not mistaken, in 2019, before everything shut down — I did reach out to Paul for an audition, because I really wanted to at least have an opportunity to be a part of the project. And then, of course, the pandemic happened, so everything was delayed. I was actually cast in another show that was supposed to go up during this time, which kind of prevented me from doing "The Inheritance," and then again, because of the pandemic, things got switched around, which opened me up to do "The Inheritance."

EDGE: It's a huge play. Between the two parts it runs something like six and a half hours. It must be intimidating!

Eddie Shields: It was very, very intimidating. It's one of those things where you wait your whole career for a role like this, and then it comes into your hands and you're like, "Oh crap, wait a minute. Do I really want this?"

EDGE: Now that you have been in that process for a while, how are you feeling? Is it still intimidating, or have you reached the point where you're saying, "It's gonna be great!"?

Eddie Shields: Actually, it's the latter because, you know, if you look at normal scripts, they're usually razor thin. But "The Inheritance" script is, like, the size of the Bible!

But as soon as I walked into that rehearsal room, I have to tell you, it was like a switch had been thrown. Everybody was so ready. Everybody was so excited that, from day one, we've just been flying, and it's been a wonderful process. Of course, I have my moments where I get a little scared and I get a little insecure, but I think that that's part of the process in any role, and it also specifically helps the character a little bit, so I'm trying to use it, as they say.

EDGE: The two parts have some key differences, but overall is the direction and design work more or less the same for Parts One and Part Two?

Eddie Shields: I've been thinking about this a lot, and I've been wondering why there's even two parts — why it's not just one meaty play. I think the reason is because these stories need to be told at the length that they're told. They encompass so much, and they're so dynamic. My character goes from his early to his mid-30s, from 31 to 35.

In terms of the design work, I'm pretty sure that the designers are keeping it the same. You'll start to see different design elements in clothing with the characters as they grow, maybe different design elements as they go to upstate New York [in Part Two], but for the most part you're going to see kind of the same show in both parts, design-wise.

EDGE: Your character has two significant relationships over the course of the two parts of the play. What is it like for you exploring those relationships and the chemistry between you and Jared Reinfeldt, who plays Toby, and then, in Part Two, between you and Dennis Trainor Jr., who plays Harold?

Eddie Shields: It's really fun, because the dynamics are so different. And it's very rare that if you do a play, you get to have two very different love interests. But you'll notice that their relationships are wildly different from each other. I would say Eric is more of a caretaker for Toby. Eric wants Toby to be happy; he sees some kind of lost soul in Toby, and he wants to take care of Toby and spend his life with him. Whereas, with Henry, it's kind of the opposite. Henry is a billionaire, and really wants to take care of Eric — and that's something that Eric hasn't been used to in his life.

The actors that I'm playing opposite [in these two relationships] are phenomenal, and it's easy to have chemistry with two really great, open actors.

EDGE: Speaking of meta, the play is set, in part, in the world of the theater. How much are you drawing on your own experience in theater, versus wanting to create a distance between life and art?

Eddie Shields: That's definitely something that I thought about when I first started my own journey with the play, before we got into the rehearsal. It's very rare, at least in my career, that I find a play and character that I really identify with, and sometimes that can be scary because I'm not necessarily putting on a characterization. There were some scenes that, when I was doing my own personal study, I kind of stayed away from because the way they made me feel, I knew I would have to go places that that scare me. But that is my job as an actor: To tell the story as honestly and as truthfully as I can. And I did want to do this story because of that, because I know that if I feel this way, there are others who feel this way as well. I have to dive in, and I have to maybe sacrifice some of my trauma, and maybe some of my thoughts and my experiences, in order to tell the story as honestly as I can.

I think because there's so many characters in the play, you, as an audience member, are going to find your own character that you identify with most. You're going to say, "Yes, that's me! That's exactly what I feel, that's exactly what I experience." It's definitely a scary process, but the room is really helping, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

EDGE: It is a big cast, and it's Eric who seems like the binding agent; he's the one who makes sense as everyone's arguing. He's the voice of reason. What motivation have you found, as an actor, for what Eric does?

Eddie Shields: That's a great question, because a lot of times, if you read up on "The Inheritance," it'll be like, "It's about Eric Glass, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." But I don't really agree with that. I think it's about the group. And Eric, as you said, is kind of the facilitator. I see Eric as the string that carries the story along, and, more importantly, the string that allows each generation to be in the same room and have the same conversation. If you think about the generation above me, my generation, and the generation below me, while we do have similar experiences, the world looks so different [to all of us], and the conversations are just so different now about what it means to be a gay man. Eric is that one true line; he's like, "Hey, let's get in a room. Let's discuss this. Let's try to push this forward. Let's see where we can grow." I personally identify with that. I'm always interested in how we can become a better, stronger, more efficient community.

EDGE: There is a kind of a dividing line in the play between generations. There's an older cohort of men who lived through the AIDS crisis and fought against discrimination to earn the rights that we have now. Then, as you point out, there's that middle cohort, and they have their own generational differences with even younger men. And now, in real life, I feel terrible for the younger kids who are facing this new tidal wave of anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

Eddie Shields: It shows you how far have we come, and how far we still have to go. Exactly what you're saying is some of my favorite scenes of the play, because it does specifically hit on those three generations. I know what it's like to look up to some of my mentors and have them lose all of their friends and their lovers, and their own mentors, and then to need my own mentors, and then to pass [that mentorship] down to the next generation who, you know, they have pop stars that are openly gay; they have actors that are openly gay; they can they can come out of the closet when they're 10, or 11, or 12. And it's more normal than when I was [their age], or for the generation above me. That's a lot of what really attracted me to play in this, because these are conversations that I rarely get to see onstage and very rarely get to play.

EDGE: "The Inheritance" has a way of getting right to the core of what's driving so much of the division and rage we see around us today. I think Henry sums it up when he tells your character, Eric, "I'm responsible to you, to my boys, to myself, and no one else." We're seeing people just step away now from taking any responsibility for a greater good.

Eddie Shields: I think you just hit my character's conundrum. He finds himself surrounded by people who, because of what we have had to go through as gay men in different generations, we are very self-sufficient, right? And we say, "Well, then, fine: If nobody is going to protect me, then I need to protect myself." My character kind of swims in the question of, "But wait a minute, don't we have a responsibility to not only teach the next generation, but help guide them? And if we don't do that, then what happens to us?" My character literally says, "If we can't have a conversation with the past, what will be our future? Who are we, and more importantly, who will we become?" I think that's a big question that Eric does try to answer.

EDGE: It feels to me like this play in itself is the "inheritance" that the title is refers to — it encapsulates so much about this moment, about our culture, things that future generations would do well to take lessons from.

Eddie Shields: Absolutely. I think we actually have a list in the rehearsal room of what we think the inheritance means, right? And it's exactly what you said. It encapsulates so much. It could be the house. It could be the trauma. It could be finances, it could be art, it could be politics. It could be so much.

"The Inheritance," Parts One and Two, runs April 22 — June 11 at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information, go to https://www.speakeasystage.com/shows/2022/04/the-inheritance.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.