Hours before the first preview of "The Iceman Cometh" last week, the theater was nearly empty. Jason Robards stood alone on stage, practicing his bows, anticipating, perhaps, the applause that would rush over and through him after his epic performance as hardware salesman, bar-fly and visionary Theodore Hickman -- "Hickey."

A few people in the back of the hall, including American National Theater director Peter Sellars, provided lonely applause. When the sound died and the curtain call rehearsal was over, Robards walked off into the wings. "Tonight we add the last element," he said. "Tonight we get an audience. If they respond, we'll respond. If they fall asleep, well, we pack up and go on to the next thing."

Robards first played the part of Hickey in the celebrated 1956 production directed by Jose Quintero. He played it once more for television, in 1960, under the direction of Sidney Lumet. Now, in the production opening tonight at the Kennedy Center, Robards is reunited with Quintero. Like Quintero, his career has been closely associated with the works of Eugene O'Neill. Robards has appeared in productions of "Iceman," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Hughie" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

In a voice that sounds like tires kicking gravel off a country road, Robards talked about his epic role as Hickey:

"The real significance of this role at first is that I could finally start acting and stop pounding the pavement for a living. I'd been doing all sorts of things: driving a cab, working for a steno service, stretching people, setting up bowling pins, working in a translator's office, crap like that. And just once in a while, acting. 'Iceman' enabled me to be employed and go on acting.

"When I first did it, it was in a 200-seat theater on off-Broadway, the original Circle in the Square on Sheridan Square. I didn't get the part until a week before the rehearsals began. The only thing I'd done in preparation was learn the long speech that Hickey gives in the end about his life and his wife, where he grew up and all that business. It's an aria he sings. There are other voices, but it's mostly his.

"When I first did Hickey I was a young 33, a kid with young kids at home. So the length of the play never had much effect. What is it? 'We're 24 and we'll live forever.' Scott Fitzgerald. You never die. But that goes. Now? I try to get enough rest and keep from straining my voice. You don't want to strain it, not with a part that has big arias, one in the second act and the really big one in the fourth.

"The play is scored that way. Themes repeat. The full orchestra plays, then the second violin, then me, then bass. It's got a great tone to it, this play. It's beautifully written, but you don't realize it for a while. Finally it occurs to you -- the rhythm, the tones.

"The play is long, but memory, well, you just do it over and over again. It's like Pavlov's dog. You take it step by step, second by second in rehearsal. It's all associative. Who are you talking to? Where are you standing? When you miss a spot or a move, you can forget the line. All associative, no memory involved, really. It's just the repetition of a set of circumstances in life. If we repeated this conversation over and over, 12, 14 hours a day, thought about it every night, worked on it for six weeks, there would be no memory involved. It's a cooperative thing and everyone has to provide the same things every day.

"It's impossible to say how I've changed as Hickey. You never see yourself on stage. Besides, it changes so much every night. You try to say the same lines, make the same points, but each night the audience reacts differently and you react to them. I didn't really live with the 1960 kinescope. The last time I saw it was when I was working on a movie with Matthew Broderick. His father had been in the kinescope with me -- Jimmy Broderick, he played Willie -- and so we played it on the VHS. But now is a whole new set of circumstances. A different company. You begin from scratch.

"People ask if I see Hickey in myself. That's not for me to say. My thing is to learn the lines, learn where I'm supposed to stand and listen when other people are talking. That's it. We go moment by moment. You are there to serve the play and the playwright, who is serving us. And we serve the audience. And they serve us.

"I gave up drinking 11 years ago. It's so long ago, I can hardly remember it. So I suppose I understand better now what O'Neill has to say about booze. But Hickey doesn't make much reference to that. He says, 'I'm trying to save you from something else.' Pipe dreams, not facing reality, that's what he's really trying to save them from.

"But I've been using 'The Iceman' in alcohol abuse programs in hospitals. We started it at the Mayo Clinic four years ago. It's called 'Insight.' At an outpatient clinic at Mayo a woman named Mary Martin -- not the actress -- played a record of 'The Iceman Cometh' that I'd done. She played it for families and alcoholics. They'd heard all sorts of lectures and programs before, but this thing, the speech about reality, it struck them deeply. So Mary called me and put me together with two doctors. The first doctor does a straight talk on denying alcoholism, the second one acts as a kind of intermediary, and then I do the monologue. We've done it for 52,000 doctors so far. It's fantastic. It really helps doctors reach their patients.

"My relationship with O'Neill's work is a coincidence, really. His reputation had been really low and nobody was doing him. So when we did 'The Iceman,' Mrs. O'Neill took 'Long Day's Journey' -- it had been buried in the archives -- she took it away from Random House, published it with Yale and gave it to us. So after 'Iceman' closed, I did that. So I did three years of O'Neill, two giant works. We never expected to set the world on fire, but after that everyone got interested in O'Neill. I didn't do another O'Neill play for 11 years, but I've always been tied to him.

"I guess this will be the last time I play Hickey. But you always have the feeling with great plays that you wish you could do them again. That's why people do Shakespearian roles over and over. You've grown. You feel you know more about life."