PORTLAND, Maine — Neighborhood dogs yapped, somewhere beyond the wooden fence separating Kevin O’Leary’s backyard from the rest of the world on Wednesday night.

Mosquitoes buzzed in crazy circles, looking for a blood meal. Low-flying airplanes droned above the treetops, approaching the nearby jetport. Night’s blue dusk descended, along with the temperature, leaving O’Leary’s still-green September lawn wet with dew.

There, on the grass, lit by a single floodlight and a crackling fire of twigs, an ancient, magical ritual was performed.

Actors transformed themselves into other people and rehearsed a play.

Actors Kip Davis and Marie Stewart-Harmon gaze at the evening sky in Portland on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, while rehearsing a play. The new piece, titled “Mars,” has been in the works since before the pandemic. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The company was unfazed by the darkness, bugs, planes, dogs, cold and damp. They’d already been through much worse.

They’d been forced to live without live theater.

Due to the pandemic, the company had to put off breathing life into O’Leary’s script for two years. Going that long without practicing their art was dizzying, disorienting and nearly unbearable, like holding their breath too long underwater.

But with a fierce dedication to O’Leary, and with a deep belief in the power and importance of their age-old storytelling art, they made it through the dark days — together.

This month, they’ll finally perform the tale they’ve been dying to tell at Studio Theatre in Portland.

O’Leary wrote the play, “Mars,” for this cast, in particular. It was supposed to debut in fall 2020.

That didn’t happen. No other live theater happened, either.

“The pandemic was a dark time for me,” said Marie Stewart-Harmon, an actor in the show. “The fire in my belly was gone. I got depressed.”

Clockwise, from left: Playwright and director Kevin O’Leary laughs while watching his actors rehearse in his Portland backyard on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022; Actor Sean Ramey rehearses a new play in director Kevin O’Leary’s Portland backyard at dusk; Marie Stewart-Harmon tends a fire while rehearsing a new play outdoors, in a Portland backyard, after dusk on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

It’s a sentiment echoed by the other two cast members in the show, as well as O’Leary.

“Everything just stopped and I didn’t know what to do,” said actor Sam Ramey.

O’Leary has spent his entire life in the theater — as an actor, director and playwright — in both Portland and New York. Earlier this year, he retired after teaching English and theater at Morse High School in Bath for 21 years.

At loose ends during that first pandemic summer, O’Leary built a small makeshift stage in his backyard. He calls it the “Shake Shack,” after Shakespeare. The roofless, rustic, sapling-and-rope affair became a refuge for O’Leary and his theater clan at a time when nobody knew how long the pandemic would last.

“We were scared. There was no vaccine yet,” O’Leary said.

Together, but at a distance, the company staged readings of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” in the Shake Shack. Later, they performed all of the Bard’s sonnets for each other.

“We had six foot lengths of rope to keep us apart,” Stewart-Harmon said. “But at least I was here, in this space, with other people.”

It wasn’t exactly like being on a real stage, in a theater, but it was enough to keep the company together and exercising their emotional acting muscles.

Kevin O’Leary watches actor Kip Davis rehearse a new play, “Mars,” in Portland on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. Playwright O’Leary, and his cast, have been waiting since before the pandemic to stage the work. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I’m so grateful this became a place for people to gather together,” Stewart-Harmon said. “Theater people have a way of finding each other.”

O’Leary possesses a powerful charismatic draw a lesser man might employ in starting a cult. Instead, he uses his ability to inspire actors, to give them rich language to say and allow them safe space to plumb the depths of their own souls.

“Theater can be messy and complicated but he embraces that,” actor Kip Davis said. “It makes it easy to find the truth and put in the work.”

Inspired by his own backyard view of the heavens, O’Leary’s new play centers on a pair of lovers and stargazers, following them through hilarious and devastating times together. They must decide whether they will — or can — go on with their lives together.

“There is life and there is death  — the death of the spirit, the soul, the passion,” O’Leary said. “And we also have the chance to live.”

With “Mars” finally getting performed later this month, O’Leary is already looking to the future. He’s written five plays in the last 18 months.

Actors and crew rehearse a new play in Kevin O’Leary’s Portland backyard on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022. It’s the same backyard where he staged distanced readings of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams plays during the darkest depths of the pandemic in 2020. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“I have a lot of pokers in the fire and I’m happy about all of them,” he said.

Meanwhile, the actors will go on rehearsing in his backyard, unconcerned with the distractions, before they move to the theater for their performances.

“Theater exists again, right here in this backyard,” she said.

“Kevin O’Leary’s Mars” will be performed at the Studio Theatre in Portland, Wednesday through Saturday, Sept. 22-Oct. 1, at 7 p.m.. Tickets may be purchased online.

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.