JERE SHEA hadn't a clue about theater when he was a child. Now, as the Tony-nominated lead in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical ``Passion,'' Broadway has practically become his second home.
The role has taken him far from his suburban Boston base to such cities as San Diego, Dublin, and Moscow.
``I'd seen a lot of movies, and I always loved stories,'' he recalls while relaxing between shows in his dressing room at New York's Plymouth Theatre.
He has his sister to thank for his first acting experience. She asked him to try out for a play at her all-girls high school. His face lights up. ``I said sure! ... I took a lot of heat for it then.''
Fifteen years later, after serving as understudy for Peter Gallagher in the current revival of ``Guys and Dolls,'' Shea finds himself among the small circle of Tony nominees. A Theatre World Award two weeks ago for his performance confirmed his arrival as one of Broadway's new leading actors.
Based on the obscure Italian novel ``Fosca'' by I.U. Tarchetti and its Ettore Scola film adaptation ``Passions d'Amore,'' the musical has generated much discussion since the project was announced. ``A lot of reviews have described it as grim,'' Shea says.
Centered on Giorgio, the Italian soldier Shea portrays, it traces his evolution from deep involvement in an adulterous affair with a married woman in 1883 Italy, to his subsequent devotion to a sickly recluse, the cousin of his commanding officer.
Her relentless, obsessive pursuit of the young officer, stripping him of all his previous romantic beliefs, tracks the emotional journey of a man not given to exposing or examining his deepest feelings.
``On paper, it's kind of depressing,'' Shea continues. ``I feel it's an uplifting thing, a positive message ultimately. People don't expect to be so moved.''
In rehearsal, ``I really tried not to judge anything. But as soon as the oxygen hit it, when people saw it,'' during the previews, ``we knew where the problems were. It's such an intense piece, with these intense characters that just don't let up.''
During the rewriting period, it became a major objective to create certain moments when the audience could release tension through laughter. Working with Broadway legend Sondheim was a significant event for Shea.
``Of course, I've always been impressed'' with his work, says Shea, whose familiarity comes mostly from listening to CDs of past Sondheim shows.
``He's a very down-to-earth guy and dispelled a lot of the tension early on. I didn't feel like there was a hierarchy when I walked into rehearsal. For him, it's about the work, and moving the audience, and that's what it is for me, too.''
Shea's dramatic training proved valuable in preparing for his current role.
``This guy reminds me of, and feels a lot like Satine in Gorky's `Lower Depths,' because he had a past that he wanted to shut off. He also wanted to disallow himself certain feelings, and by the end of the play, he opened himself up in much the same way.''
After graduating from Boston College, the strapping actor enrolled at New York University (NYU), where roles like Satine broadened his repertoire. His college years provided not only valuable training, but also the opportunity to study in two different foreign cultures.
While an undergraduate, he spent a summer at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. ``I met so many people there who were interested in going to theater to understand human relationships,'' he says.
An NYU program led to a month in Moscow, studying with Russian actors. At that time, because actors were still paid by the state, ``they could work for a year on something,'' a luxury he would have enjoyed.
From first rehearsal to opening night, ``Passion'' took just eight weeks. Shea came in a week early, since he was not involved in the project's initial development workshops, which took place while he performed ``Damn Yankees'' in San Diego.
Along with its dark subject, other elements of ``Passion'' prompted comment. The first sequence opens with the officer and the mistress alone in a rented hotel room.
``I think a concern of mine was the nudity at the beginning, and I had to be sure that it was done the way it was intended,'' he says, adding: ``Is this something just to sell tickets, or is it something that sets up the story of the play. The only way you can balance out the end of this play is for it to start the way it does.''
Pointing to a framed photograph on his dressing table, he adds, ``I always let my wife read scripts before I sign any contracts, and she agreed that I should do this show.''
Pausing to let the street noise below subside, he reflects that ``like a lot other young guys, I'd love to play Stanley in `Steetcar,' and Murphy in `Cuckoo's Nest,' and anything by Mamet. I love that stuff. A casting director said to me the other day, `So now you're Mister Musical!' It's fun. For me, though, there's nothing more satisfying than a great straight play.''
DURING the next weeks, Shea will be anticipating the arrival of perhaps his greatest role - that of father. His wife is expecting twins.
And how would he react if the twins expressed an interest in acting? ``I'm really concerned about it.'' he says and smiles broadly. ``I've seen so many people who are performers, who assume that their child will follow, and that's not always the case.
``I would probably hold off helping them until they show that they really want it. It's going to be up to them. There's got to be that desire.''
Shea, whose father teaches junior high students and mother reports for a business publication, had to overcome his own obstacles, starting with the derision of school friends who may have seen him as a ``theater wimp.''
But for him, the commitment paid off. ``It's done more for me than I've done for it,'' he says modestly. ``It's changed my life. I don't know what I'd be doing.''