Kevin Hardesty was being a dutiful beau. His partner, Rachel Lee Rogers, had left some boots at home that she needed for the opening-night performance of Bug in September at Balagula Theatre. So he went and found them and brought them to the stage at Natasha's Bistro and Bar.
"I walked in, and there was nobody there; they were on their dinner break," Hardesty recalls. "I walked in backstage, and I'd never been in that theater before. And I don't know, I had this little moment of sadness, like I could smell the sawdust and the props and all of it.
"It was weird. It was sort of like I was coming home a little bit."
Little did he know, he was.
Through most of the 1990s and early 2000s, Hardesty lived on area stages. He was essentially Lexington's leading man, playing iconic roles including Hamlet, Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and serving as associate artistic director and then artistic director of Actors Guild of Lexington. Then, he essentially disappeared.
But that night in September, the wheels were set in motion for Hardesty's comeback.
Shortly before the show opened, Balagula co-artistic director Natasha Williams cornered Hardesty on the sidewalk outside the theater.
"She said, 'I don't know you. I've heard stories about you. I have a script you must read called Don Juan,'" Hardesty recalls.
It was Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt's Don Juan on Trial, a 1991 play in which the notorious libertine is put on trial by five of his former lovers.
"My first impression was, 'Don Juan? That ship might have sailed for me,'" Hardesty says. "I read it, and I was immediately struck with the language. ... It just struck me as being really delicious. I started reading it out loud, and I said, I like this. It feels good. It feels like Shakespeare a little bit."
Hardesty says he was drawn by that and the chance to work with Williams, co-artistic director Ryan Case, whom Hardesty helped usher onto local stages during his time at Actors Guild, and Rogers, who is in the midst of her own stage comeback.
Then there was the character.
"I found parallels to my own journey and what happens to Don Juan in the play," Hardesty says. "It's not Don Juan at the height of his running and gunning. It's really Don Juan at the end of the binge, where he's come to terms with the emptiness and the futility of his hedonistic pursuits, which is something I can relate to."
Hardesty's long absence from the stage was tied to some of his own demons.
"The truth is that I'm an alcoholic," Hardesty says. "The alcohol brought me down to my knees five years ago. I got sober, and I've been sober five years.
"I was rebuilding my life, prioritizing things and taking a much-needed break."
Hardesty returns to a different theatrical landscape than he left. The Lexington Shakespeare Festival — which he was active in when it was "literally people pulling up their cars and turning on the headlights so we could do a play" — is now gone, replaced by SummerFest. Actors Guild went through some serious changes and has moved from downtown to suburban Harrodsburg Road. And one of the primary theaters in town, where he will make his return, is based in a restaurant.
"I had never seen a show there until that night, when I saw Bug," Hardesty says. "I was really impressed. It's so intimate, which is really cool."
The space reminds him of old Lexington theater venues such as Theatre DownUnder at Levas' restaurant or Actors Guild's old Short Street theater, "where a breath could read to the back row."
He looks forward in coming months and years to exploring the new Lexington theatrical landscape and "getting together with all my old theater friends. I want to reconnect with them."