Separation Anxieties

PLAN B by Michael Healey, directed by Richard Greenblatt, with John Dolan, Peter Donaldson, Marie-Helene Fontaine and Peter MacNeill. Presented.

PLAN B by Michael Healey, directed by Richard Greenblatt, with John Dolan, Peter Donaldson, Marie-Helene Fontaine and Peter MacNeill. Presented by the Shaw Festival and the Tarragon Theatre at the Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman). Previews through January 6, opens Tuesday (January 8) and runs through February 10, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday 2:30 pm (no matinee January 5 added show January 16 at 1:30 pm). $24-$30, Sunday pwyc-$15, previews $16, stu/srs discounts. 416-531-1827.

Rating: NNNNN

you’ve got to hand it to actor Peter Donaldson. He knows how to wield power.How else could he go from being the quiet strength behind the domestic throne in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? to being finance minister of Canada in Michael Healey’s Plan B, opening the new year at the Tarragon?

At Stratford this past summer he made Albee’s George a smiling, understated but venomous mate to Martha Henry’s liquor-soaked, snarling Martha, shining in part because he didn’t fight for centre stage. And in typical repertory theatre fashion, he juggled Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Trigorin in The Seagull in the same season.

After 17 years in rep at Stratford, though, he’s happy to be working on one play at a time.

“Rehearsing Michael’s play is a full-time activity,” says Donaldson, settling back into an armchair in the Tarragon’s green room and picking away at a tiny baguette stuffed with smoked salmon and cream cheese.

The comic, futuristic Plan B is set in the negotiating room as Quebec and Canada deal with the province becoming a sovereign state. It’s a different world from the farm-based The Drawer Boy, Healey’s much-lauded previous show, which Time Magazine recently listed in its top 10 of 2001.

One reason why the rehearsals are taxing is that Healey’s written Plan B in English and French, with subtitles or surtitles translating every line.

“But I don’t speak French,” moans Donaldson with a slight laugh. “Everyone else in the rehearsal hall does, so I feel like the village idiot.

“It’s a very humbling rehearsal process.”

Still, he can be confident about commanding the focus of an audience. For one thing, there’s that resonant voice that speaks reassuringly even in the quiet confines of the green room. And then there’s his ability to handle classical or contemporary text with ease and emotional depth.

Donaldson’s work has been part of some of the most memorable Stratford shows of the past 30 years, among them Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, staged twice and later turned into an award-winning film.

He finds a surprising parallel in the rhythms of the Albee and Healey plays.

“Both playwrights are annoyingly specific about the words they put down. If you set yourself in the groove of their writing, say the words as they’re written, you can’t get lost. It’s like following a musician’s score, with room for personal expression and interpretation.

“But if you try to paraphrase it, you’re fucked. It takes a long time to make up the ground you’ve lost.”

And speaking of rhythms, I remind him of a production of Gypsy — one of the best American musicals of the 50s — that proved only tepid at Stratford. Donaldson almost stole the show as Herbie, the low-key salesman who constantly woos Mama Rose, the character who should be the production’s real fire. Nevertheless, he’s not known for his musical work, though next year at Stratford he plays Mr. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera, directed by Stephen Ouimette.

“Doing musicals is no less taxing than Shakespeare or O’Neill, but in a different, more physical way. Sometimes regular musical performers gloss over elements in the script, those nuggets of real life that I always go for.

“Maybe it’s because I have to sing, too, so I’m desperately searching for something to hang my hat on. The rest is like stepping off a cliff. Possibly that’s why I stood out as Herbie. I really wanted to connect with the audience.”

He still thrives on rep work, since moving back and forth gives each show some refreshing down time. That’s especially useful for demanding pieces like Virginia Woolf and Long Day’s Journey, with its liquor, drugs and high-strung operatic emotions.

“Audiences are concerned for us at the end of a show like that,” he admits. “I’m exhausted, yes, but after all, I’ve gotten it all out.

“I’ve dumped all that emotion on the paying public, and I feel fine.”

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