When director Jose' Quintero looks back on his celebrated 1956 production of "The Iceman Cometh" at the Circle in the Square, he wonders how he managed to pull it off.

"I had heard of Eugene O'Neill before then, of course, but 'Iceman' was the first of his plays I had ever read. I couldn't sleep afterwards. All I knew was that I had to do it," he says. "For the young man that I was -- to have no doubts about understanding this masterpiece! To have the certainty that I was going to get the right cast, even though we were paying only $10 a week and no middle-aged actor was going to work for that! It took the blind courage or ignorance of youth. But it happened. I still don't know how."

Not only did it happen, "Iceman" proved a turning point in the American theater. Overnight, the production established Quintero as the country's most gifted director of O'Neill, just as it prompted a reevaluation of O'Neill himself, who had been dead for three years and whose critical reputation was at a scandalously low ebb. The cast members also came in for their share of praise, but none so prominently as Jason Robards Jr., the 33-year-old unknown playing Hickey, a character nearly twice his age.

Now, three decades later, Quintero, 60, is restaging "The Iceman Cometh" for the Kennedy Center's American National Theater. In the four-hour production, which begins previews on Wednesday, Robards will once again appear as Hickey, the traveling salesman who barges into a waterfront saloon and tries to strip its down-and-out occupants of their life-sustaining pipe dreams. But if no one knew what to expect in 1956, expectations are running murderously high this time. Quintero is flirting with legend -- in part, a legend of his own making -- and he knows it.

"The 1956 production happened. That's a fact and it will continue to be a fact. But I don't refer back to it," he says after a long day's rehearsal that has left him vaguely discombobulated. "I have done the opposite. I have tried not to remember anything about it. It's all there, I'm sure, recorded somewhere in my head, and it will seep through anyway. But it would be cheating the material and the cast if I consciously focused on it. They live in the now. I live in the now. The play is a masterpiece now. So I'm treating it all like a new experience."

They have always constituted a true odd couple of the theater -- O'Neill, the flinty and obdurate New Englander, whom many consider to be America's finest playwright; and the mercurial and poetic Quintero, born and raised in Panama and still the possessor of a thick Spanish accent. O'Neill was one of the titans, unbending to the end. Quintero seems to belong to the ranks of the yielders, the traumatized.

"It is still a kind of mystery to me -- this enormous kinship I feel," Quintero says. "But there are certain things that helped me recognize myself in his work. I mean, we were both Catholics. My sense of not being wanted by my parents and the society in which I lived was very pronounced when I was a young man. The outcasts in 'Iceman' are no strangers to me. O'Neill was a black Irishman and it is possible that he had some Spanish blood in him.

"The important thing is that he made me understand so many things about my own life. He could see the ridiculous predicament of man and at the same time was able to elevate man as the most important thing in the world. He knew what man has to put up with, what he has to invent, in order to endure his own fate. And he made me see that the struggle to live is what ennobles. He did not compromise at all. I don't know many people who can say that."

Quintero never met O'Neill, but after the 1956 'Iceman,' he became friends with O'Neill's widow (and third wife) Carlotta, who entrusted him with the playwright's autobiographical masterpiece, "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Quintero's production of it, which opened on Broadway in late 1956, won O'Neill a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, his fourth. With Carlotta blessing, Quintero then proceeded to stage many of O'Neill's major works -- chief among them "Strange Interlude," "Desire Under the Elms" and "A Moon for the Misbegotten."

The tormented relationship between O'Neill and Carlotta rivaled any in his plays and persisted even after the playwright had died. "There were so many levels of fantasy into which Carlotta led me, and into which I willingly went," Quintero says. "Sometimes she would take me for Eugene. Other times she would actually see him and talk with him. 'You have to stay by my side,' she would say. 'You have to defend me against him.' And I would say, 'But I don't see him.' And she would say, 'But he's there.' And indeed he was for her.

"I respected and loved her. I am one of the few people in the theater who uses those words in terms of Carlotta. So many people hated her. But I loved her beauty, her sense of drama, her temper, her sensuality. I loved the fact that it was with her that O'Neill wrote his greatest plays and that she had a lot to do with that. She subjugated herself and her talent as an actress to him. I think she would have been a very poor actress on stage, but when he brought his works to her, she knew how to respond."

Quintero is currently writing what may or may not be his autobiography. Whatever it turns out to be, he says a large chunk of it will deal with O'Neill and the haunted creature that was Carlotta. For the last few years, he has been doing the writing in Los Angeles. When he first came to the United States from Panama, it was to attend Los Angeles City College, and he's always considered the city with its semitropical vegetation his American home.

He's created a huge rose garden for himself and tends it faithfully. He conducts acting workshops. He writes. What he doesn't do much anymore is direct. His last Broadway show was Tennessee Williams' 1980 drama about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel"; its failure helped to fuel Quintero's disenchantment with the New York theater.

"It was not one of Tennessee's great plays, by any means," Quintero says. "One had to accept that he had lost certain powers of construction, that things in that play did not all fit together. What I minded was that there were beautiful passages in terms of his language that were not applauded as they deserved to be applauded, that were taken for granted. Afterwards, Tennessee felt like he had to apologize in some way, as if he had let me and the actors down. That was the painful part of it -- that he could get so beaten. I admired and loved him enormously. To experience the diminishment of this great, great genius, who happened to be my friend, well, it was like a double death.

"With Tennessee going, O'Neill not being done commercially as often as he should, with the Broadway theater restricting itself to the one-set, four-character play, I began to feel surrounded by shadows and a sense of death. Walk down 45th Street these days. It is like one big morgue -- places that were once so alive! If you have any love for life at all, you're going to flee.

"But I think what finally sent me to California was the demolition of the Helen Hayes and Morosco theaters. That made a profound impression on me. This is perhaps childish, but theater is so fleeting, I liked to think that the great things that happened in those buildings would be retained there forever in the walls. Then when I saw that iron ball hit into them, well, it was like I had been hit in the belly myself. I somersaulted in the air and landed in California."

It took the prospect of working on "Iceman" with Robards to lure Quintero back. "I have very few friends," Quintero says, "and I would count Jason among them. As an actor, he's unique. The avenue of communication between us is so totally unobstructed, so open. There's no misunderstanding. It's like a long hallway. Unconsciously, we clarify O'Neill for one another."

The two had wanted to revive "Iceman" for years -- but either their schedules didn't mesh or financing wasn't available. Now that Broadway's dramatic parameters are more shrunken that ever, it is clear that Quintero views this production, which will move to New York after its six-week Kennedy Center engagement, as a miracle. "Maybe my reputation will lose some of its luster this time," he says, "but that doesn't matter. What matters is the kind of magic that Mr. O'Neill can bring to the theater again. That's why the responsibility is so great."

But he also says, "After this, I don't know if I will ever direct again. Of course, you never know. There are two plays of O'Neill that I would absolutely love to do -- 'Emperor Jones' and 'The Hairy Ape.' But at this point, I find myself thinking, 'This is it.' The theater has been so devastated by greed. I don't like to breathe the air. In each of my workshops, there is maybe one person whose eyes are alive and burning with purity. I am thankful the theater can still inspire that kind of passion. To me, that is life."

Quintero was a teen-ager in Panama City when his father, a successful politician and one-time governor of Panama, quit public life and left his wife for another woman -- a peasant girl down the block. "My mother was very Spanish. She was an aristocrat from Barcelona and had been reared in a convent," Quintero recalls. "She had an unbelievable sense of discipline, yet she could be terribly suspicious. My father was totally sensuous, totally charming, and he had a great deal of humor. He was a man of the earth and the sea and the sand.

"All those years, my mother never once admitted that my father did not live in the house with her. Can you imagine? We all knew he was living with his mistress, but every morning he would come home and have coffee with my mother in the garden. As a kid, I watched them from the balcony. It was like watching a silent movie. What did they talk about? I don't know. The expressions on their faces were mystery upon mystery. What would make me stand there, half hidden, and watch them day after day?"

Perhaps, he speculates, it was the same impulse that would later prompt him to be a director. Isn't a director an eavesdropper of sorts, scrutinizing a playwright's characters for revelatory signs, straining to hear their secret conversations? "I have always been an observer," Quintero says. "I was fortunate to fall into a profession for which I have been trained by life."

Growing up, he was an avid moviegoer, but he never saw a stage play until he arrived as a student in Los Angeles, caught "Life With Father" and understood practically none of it. Ironically, L.A., movie capital of the world, fostered his love for live theater. "Going to the movies in Panama was like a dream. The theater made the dream tangible," he says. While his family hoped he would go into medicine, Quintero had secret intentions of becoming an actor and was eventually able to persuade his father to let him attend the Goodman Theater School in Chicago.

In the summer of 1949, Quintero and some fellow drama students migrated east and established a summer theater in Woodstock, N.Y. It was enough of a success that the members decided to reconvene in New York City that fall. The group ultimately became known as the Circle in the Square -- a name derived from the fact that its productions took place on a three-sided stage in a former nightclub near Sheridan Square. The breakthrough came in 1952 with a revival of Williams' "Summer and Smoke," directed by Quintero and starring a young Geraldine Page. "Nothing has happened for quite a long time as admirable as the new production at the Circle in the Square," wrote Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times. Like "Iceman," "Summer and Smoke" remains one of the landmarks in off-Broadway history.

Quintero's collaboration with Williams, which included "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" for Broadway and "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" for Hollywood -- proved second in intensity only to his involvement with O'Neill. "How can I explain it?" he says. "When you are doing a Tennessee Williams play, you are one of Tennessee's characters. You feel the split in your nature between the raw primeval male and the more lyrical female. Tennessee is very much like Seville to me. There's such fantasy in Seville -- the processions, the lit candles, the fans, the wrought-iron balconies and the hidden cries in the night. O'Neill is different. He forces you into a dialogue with God -- a hard, unforgiving, unrelenting God."

If success came quickly to Quintero, it did not come easily. "A certain amount of success," he says, "is a frightening thing, particularly when you don't know what it is people are praising. I was doing all the things I was punished for as a child -- dreaming, escaping, inventing -- and I found myself wanted because of them. How could I believe that? I have a highly developed nervous system and I was consumed by fear and anger. A great deal of fear."

Fear drove him to drink and in the late 1960s Quintero succumbed to alcohol. "I didn't work for about four years," he says. "I lived for drinking -- to the point of going into a bar and stumbling and falling, wanting to fall." But he made a spectacular recovery in the early 1970s, crowned it by winning a Tony for his direction of "A Moon for the Misbegotten" and hasn't taken a drink since.

"I have always had a devouring sense of guilt," he says. "I understand the mother in 'Long Day's Journey' for feeling unworthy in the eyes of her sons, her husband, herself and primarily her God. Somehow I never accepted the Catholic notion of a forgiving God. It was such a punishing God for me. But now I accept the guilt as part of my character, deal with it, utilize it in my work."

Quintero stops himself -- perhaps he's caught the inadvertent tone of melodrama in his voice. He laughs. "Look," he says, "I enjoy myself very much. I have a freedom that is enviable. Wherever I go, I can earn my livelihood, and I can go everywhere I want. I can move toward people or move away from them. I'm still a kind of gypsy. So I am not complaining about my life. I am explaining why this attraction to O'Neill is such a fact of it.

"I understand the characters in 'Iceman' with their tomorrows that will never come. Because part of me is all man ana. But there's part of me that carries about the weight of the past. I have my mother and father in me -- they are so tangible -- and sometimes they flare up.

"When we presented 'Long Day's Journey' on Broadway, I invited my sister, Carmen, to come to the opening. After the curtain had come down, she ran backstage and said in Spanish, 'Oh, Jose', how could you! How could you do this to Papa and Mama?' I said, 'Carmen, I did not write this play.' And, of course, my mother did not take morphine like O'Neill's did. But there is another kind of truth. My sister understood that play was about our family. And I understood it, too."