Depression-era play still resonates
It’s been at least six years since Gary Farmer was last on stage, but the chance to play an iconic character in a play that still resonates so strongly with a modern audience was enough to draw him back to the footlights.
The well-known aboriginal actor originally starred in John Steinbeck’s depression era masterpiece, Of Mice and Men, in the ’80s at Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay, Ont., when Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre artistic director Brian Richmond was at the helm there.
“This is one of the most profound and moving testaments to the ills in a society that is based on class structure that encourages a wide separation between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’,” says Richmond. “Sadly, even though the play premiered 75 years ago, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, as indicated with the still-continuing occupy wall-street movement, prove that this play is as pertinent now as it was during one of the worst periods in modern economic history.”
Of Mice and Men “is an excellent example of why classic works are still important,” continues Richmond. “Many of the themes in the play continue to be discussed today, such as homelessness, economic issues and loneliness in society.”
It’s this passion for the play that is reuniting the town men in the same roles — Farmer as Lennie, and Richmond as director — for Blue Bridge’s latest production.
“I’ve been so anxious to get back to the theatre,” says Farmer. “I knew this play and I knew the power of the piece, so it seemed like a good fit.”
And Farmer’s hefty stature feels like a good fit for the role of the gentle, often misunderstood giant.
Richmond called on Farmer at home in Santa Fe, New Mexico and offered him the role.
“My interest was peaked,” says Farmer. “I thought it would be an easy way to get back to the theatre ... at 59 years old, I have to look like the strongest man in the world and I’m finding that adrenaline helps me ride through. It’s been almost thirty years,” he adds with a look of astonishment on his face.
And Richmond doesn’t doubt Farmer’s abilities in the slightest.
“He is, quite probably, the greatest aboriginal actor of his generation, in my opinion,” says Richmond. “He and I did this play together in another production once before and I can absolutely assure Victoria audiences that they will be witnessing one of the greatest performances I have witnessed in Canadian theatre.”
Farmer spent 15 years working as a theatre actor in Toronto in the ’70s and ’80s before he landed his first role in a feature film, Pow Wow Highway (which won the filmmaker’s trophy at the Sundance Film Festival and earned Farmer an Independent Spirit Award nomination for supporting male).
“The whole world opened up to me then,” says Farmer. “I’ve had quite a charmed career as an actor.”
He went on to co-star with Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmuch’s cult favourite film Dead Man and held roles in many other feature films and TV series. Farmer was also the publisher of Aboriginal Voices magazine and was one of the founders of the Aboriginal Voices radio network.
“The beautiful thing about theatre is that you have to take on a whole other life. You eat, breathe and rehearse, and have so much attachment to the piece, and even after rehearsal is over it’s a real commitment. I really admire the discipline.”
Farmer’s co-star is Stratford Festival and Broadway veteran David Ferry in the role of George.
“Especially with this piece, I wanted to feel safe, and with the combination of Brian and David, I feel very comfortable,” says Farmer.
The rest of the cast is drawn from the ranks of the company’s growing ensemble; Brian Linds as Candy, Christopher Mackie as Slim, Ashley O’Connell as Curly, Michael Armstrong as Carlson, Laurence Dean Ifill as Crooks, James Leard as the Boss and newcomers Sebastien Archibald (of ITSAZOO theatre) as Whit and Samantha Richard as Curly’s Wife.
Pacific Opera Victoria’s Ian Rye has designed the set, Patricia Reilley the costumes, Rebekah Johnson the lights and Brian Linds the sound.
“I love Brian’s concept of mixing the young and the old,” says Farmer. “It’s vital work that needs to carry on. We need the arts to stay alive. It’s the only voice we have politically — everything else feels infiltrated.” M
Of Mice and Men
Opening Thursday, July 5
8pm at the McPherson Playhouse.
Tickets starting at $24.50