POOCHWATER by Mike McPhaden, directed by Patrick Conner, with McPhaden and Jeff Miller. Presented by the Poochwater Collective in association with Theatre Passe Muraille at the Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews tonight (Thursday, February 3), opens Friday (February 4) and runs to February 27, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $23-$32, preview and Sunday pwyc-$16. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
You might not have noticed it, but over the past year actor Jeff Miller's quietly been crowned the revival king of Toronto theatre.
He's performed in all three versions of One Good Marriage, stepped into the remount of The Laramie Project last spring and is about to become half the acting team in the revival of the award-winning Poochwater.
"With both Laramie and Poochwater, I think I was lucky not to have seen the previous productions," he laughs.
"I love watching other actors do their thing, and occasionally" - there's that chuckle again - "I absorb some of their moments. A performance that's affected me stays with me, so it's advantageous that I've not been influenced by the other actors who did the roles I've taken over."
But Miller also knows that he wouldn't have reacted the same way if he were just out of theatre school.
"Back then, doing this sort of thing would have made me a nervous wreck. I'd be hugely aware of stepping into a successful show and worry that it was my fault if it weren't as successful this time around. Now I'm more relaxed."
Miller doesn't have to worry about his skills. He's proven he can play a broad spectrum of works, from the classics to new pieces, and bring an intense focus to both comedy and drama.
As the soft-voiced husband in One Good Marriage, he conveyed a quiet, solid strength in writer Sean Reycraft's look at a couple's wedding day and its painful aftermath.
In The Laramie Project, he was memorable as a Mormon theatre student who realizes the insidious chill of homophobia.
"As a gay actor, it was thrilling for me to inhabit that young straight guy who's waking up to the world around him," says Miller. "It was an amazing opportunity to explore that youthful enthusiasm and the character's arc as he questions his own moral beliefs and values."
In the comic, philosophic Poochwater, set in an American city shortly after the second world war, Miller plays a man confronted by an amnesiac war vet trying to rediscover his own past.
"My character's young not in age but in terms of a certain American youthfulness. Full of optimism and idealism, he's someone who can only see the best for himself and his unexpected visitor."
Playwright Mike McPhaden's written the piece in the vernacular of the time, trying to capture the snappy dialogue of late-40s American films. Miller feels McPhaden's nailed that voice.
"I spent three years working in Boston, and there's a real difference in how Americans speak - a confidence level, maybe a sense of superiority. Mike's caught that in the tone of his dialogue."
What's made the transition into the company so easy?
"There's always a sense that Mike and (director) Patrick Conner are rehearsing a new show. Neither ever makes reference to something that happened before or that worked in another version. I've been really impressed by that exploratory attitude."
Miller insists that audiences won't see a carbon copy of other productions, even if they've seen the show before.
"This Poochwater will be its own living, breathing production, based on the chemistry between Mike and me."