MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Director Joe Dowling is stepping into what could be a scary place at the Guthrie Theater: on stage, facing an audience as an actor for the first time in more than two decades.

Dowling makes his American acting debut as the title character — an itinerant Irish miracle-worker — in Brian Friel's "Faith Healer." Dowling, the longtime head of the Guthrie, a Tony-winning regional theater, is also directing the production, part of a worldwide celebration of Friel's 80th birthday. The show opens Oct. 23 and runs through Dec. 6.

"It's exhausting, number one, to be up there on the (rehearsal room) floor for hours on end, working it out. But it's exhilarating on another level," Dowling said. "There's a certain kind of 'oh my God!' quality to it when you start, but ... I am enjoying it."

Dowling had directed "Faith Healer" many times but never acted in it. He said he thought he would never do the play again after the death 10 years ago of Irish actor Donal McCann, whom Dowling had directed in the title role of Frank Hardy, the huckster who actually may be a healer.

But Dowling reread "Faith Healer" around Friel's birthday and "just fell in love with the play all over again. It's such a good play."

"And then I thought, 'Well, how do I find an actor that's not going to drive me crazy, because I'm going to be hearing this other actor, Donal McCann's, voice all the time?'" Dowling said. "And that's how it came to me. I suddenly thought, 'Well, why don't you do it yourself, then? Then at least you can drive yourself crazy.'"

Although Dowling filled in for an ailing actor for a few nights in a 1998 production at the old Guthrie Lab, his last real performing role was as Peer Gynt at The Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1988. Because of the structure of "Faith Healer," he does not interact with the play's other two actors on stage.

"Faith Healer" was a flop when it debuted on Broadway in 1979, with James Mason in the starring role. But a 2006 Broadway revival with Ralph Fiennes as Frank Hardy was a success. The three-character drama is a set of monologues by Hardy, his wife Grace and talent manager Teddy as they each give their version of the stillbirth of Grace's baby.

Guthrie veteran Sally Wingert plays Grace. She said Dowling brings special insight into the work of his friend Friel, whose plays include "Philadelphia, Here I Come," "Aristocrats" and the 1992 Tony-winning "Dancing at Lughnasa."

"He's had the ear of the playwright. And he himself just sort of so ... deeply understands all three of these characters that you sort of feel like you're talking to just a really avid source material," Wingert said of Dowling.

"He knows the play so well," agreed actor Raye Birk, who plays Teddy. "It's an incredibly Irish piece. So there are nuances there that ... just because it's Irish, Joe knows like only an Irishman would know."

Dowling also notes the Guthrie's connection with Friel. He said Friel came to the Minneapolis theater as an observer for its first season in 1963 and was encouraged by Tyrone Guthrie, the Guthrie's founder and first artistic director, to become a playwright.

"He went home from here, and he wrote 'Philadelphia, Here I Come' on what he described to me as 'a Guthrie high,'" Dowling said of Friel.

Dowling is not the first Guthrie artistic director to also take the stage as an actor. But he is doing it while also directing Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" on another Guthrie stage, and guiding the Guthrie as it deals with the economic slump and the theaters first deficit in 14 years.

"I've just got to be careful to make certain that we don't let the ball drop on any front. And that just requires me being here a lot longer than I might want to be," Dowling said, laughing.

Veteran stage director Mark Lamos, who has also directed at the Guthrie since Dowling has been there, knows what it's like to tread the boards while also directing. He did it twice when he was artistic director of the Hartford Stage in Connecticut — with lead roles in "The Importance of Being Earnest" and in Arthur Schnitzler's "Anatol."

"Both times it was absolutely terrifying," said Lamos, who is now artistic director of Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut. "I don't think I'll do it again. It was very scary. I was being judged not only for my performance but for my work as a director."

He called the experience "a little dysfunctional because you're watching yourself in a way I don't think you would if you were just acting and could rely on the director to watch you."

Dowling says he stopped reading reviews years ago — reading them "just irritates the hell out of me," he said — and he doesn't plan to change when critics review his turn in "Faith Healer."

"My advice to all actors is, 'Don't read reviews.' So I intend to take that advice."


On the Net:

Guthrie Theater: http://www.guthrietheater.org

Dowling started his career as an actor — as a student, he was in the acting company at the Abbey Theatre, Ireland's national theater — before switching to directing. The 61-year-old Dublin native says he's having a good time acting again.