By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You can always tell when Shaun Johnston is in a theatre. Yes, there’s his beloved Chevy pick-up (c. 1990) outside the Varscona, a four-inch layer of snow on the cab. In a world of constant flux and starry oneupmanship, there’s something highly consoling about this.
The effect is enhanced when you catch sight of a mysterious round red machine in the cargo bed. It’s the same one you asked Johnston about last time he went AWOL from TV-land to be onstage here, four years ago. After all, you never know when someone might need an air compressor, as he points out.
There’s one upgrade to this image of constancy. “OK, I’m not in love with those, but…” says the man himself, affable as ever, apologetically pointing out rust concealer thingies around the fenders. Johnson, incidentally, remains the only actor of my acquaintance who habitually moves through the world with a tire gauge in his shirt pocket. After all, you never know….
“I know where everything is! And I use it all!”
Johnston has brought his lanky frame back from television — where he’s the salty patriarch Jack Bartlett in the long-running CBC series Heartland — in honour of the 25th anniversary season of the theatre company he co-founded with U of A theatre school mate John Hudson.
Johnston’s Shadow Theatre homecoming this time is Annapurna, a two-hander relationship reunion/mystery of the ignitable type by well-known American playwright Sharr White. In Hudson’s production, opening Thursday at the Varscona, Johnston is a cowboy-poet living a ragged, much-reduced sort of life in a crumbling trailer in the Colorado wilds. Shadow leading lady Coralie Cairns is the wife the wife he hasn’t seen since she walked out on him in the middle of the night 20 years ago.
How has she tracked him down? And why? The exchanges are acrimoniously witty. “All’s fair,” says the actor. “There are no Geneva Convention rules in this relationship.”
“It’ll be a shocker when the lights come up!” grins Johnston, who’s just startled the baristas into conversation by trying to pay for a a couple of coffees with a hundred dollar bill.
In his time Johnston has played a succession of striding cowboy heroes, deviants, miscreants, psycho killers, sheriffs, good ol’ boys, first in theatre and then mostly film and TV. The last time he was onstage here, Johnston was the grizzled Old Man drinking Jim Beam in Shadow’s 2012 revival of Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, the same scorcher in which he’d played the restless rancher/visionary Eddie in 1982. And there’s something about Shepard’s laconic visceral style that suits Johnston to a T.
This time, an actor who looks born to wear jeans and boots, on whom cowboy hats do not look like an affection, will be wearing … an apron. Only an apron — if you don’t count the oxygen tank in a backpack. “Well, that’s a new experience for everyone,” he laughs amiably. “Don’t sit in the front row.”
“This show’s a freight train, two hands on deck the whole time,” he says, cheerfully mixing his transportation metaphors. “I do love the dialogue, the ‘cowboy-poet’ (designation). But it goes way beyond that. My character is a smart guy, a highly educated, highly intelligent person. But he hasn’t let that academic strain affect the truth of who he is….”
“I’m using Shaun’s voice, Shaun’s dialect,” he says of his take on Ulysses, the surprisingly erudite cowboy-poet who has somehow — in one of the play’s mysteries — been reduced to terminal squalor. “Not some cowboy extravaganza.”
Shaun’s “dialect,” incidentally, is the idiom of the Ponoka jock farm kid who came to theatre improbably, and late at that at 26, via working on the rigs, freelance trucking, and every other kind of construction job. It is entirely likely that he was the only actor in his theatre school class who might plausibly say of his younger self that “I could have plumbed your house. And welded your railing too.”
Life experience was his strong suit. When the drama department auditioning team asked “do you have any questions for us?” he was probably the only hopeful who stepped up: “So, do I get in?” He’s amused by his memory of theatre luminary Tom Peacocke, now professor emeritus, saying briskly, with a smile, “You’re the one! Every group has a bad one!”
Back to Annapurna, named for a Himalayan peak of formidable challenges for climbers. “I bite at Coralie’s character,” says Johnston of Ulysses. “Each of them holds a card. Or each one thinks the other one does. And they take a lot of shots to see if they can catch a look at the card…. It has the momentum of a thriller, without being one. As well as the emotions of life and love.”
“I knew I’d love it; John picked it,” Johnston says of his Shadow co-founding father. “He knows me as well as any theatre and film pro in the business…. My affection for John has remained the same from the get-go,” he says of the Shadow-y origins of the company. Its official history starts with the 1992 premiere of Johnston’s own Catching The Train, a gritty drug-fuelled tale (with live rock band) inspired by growing up in the mean streets of Edmonton.
“We founded Shadow together, but it was John’s conception. And it was simply this: if you do good theatre people will come.”
Ironically, Annapurna brings Johnston back to Edmonton precisely at the moment he doesn’t have a place to stay in his home town. He and Sue, his wife of three decades, have always lived in Edmonton with their two boys even though Johnston spent much time doing TV and movies in Vancouver or Calgary (where Heartland shoots). Until now.
They’ve just sold their place here, and bought one in Kelowna. Why Kelowna? “It was where we had our honeymoon, and it kinda grabbed me,” says Johnston. “I didn’t have enough money for Paris or Hawaii,” he grins. “I had to hawk my camera to buy a wedding ring.”
He credits “my entire career to Sue. She’s the reason I stayed with it, the reason I was able to succeed in my craft.”
That craft of acting “is the same on film as onstage, of course,” Johnston says. “You have to inhabit a character, and keep relationships real.” But in comparison to the 7 1/2 day shoots per episode of Heartland, for example, “theatre is all-consuming. You rehearse all day for weeks; at night you do your homework….”
Ah, except for the 7 a.m. pick-up hockey games he plays every Wednesday and Friday he’s in Edmonton.
What he likes about Annapurna is the relationship that is gradually revealed in the course of the play: “the efforts of two people to solve the mysteries of love…. I’m a dad. I know what it’s like to love so deeply you’d be willing to die for someone.”
Written by: Sharr White
Directed by: John Hudson
Starring: Coralie Cairns, Shaun Johnston
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Feb. 5
Tickets: 780-434-5564 or TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca)