The park-like set is standing, lights are up and Jamie Farr, shoulders slightly stooped, strolls onto the Mayfield Dinner Theatre stage.
Farr is in Edmonton to perform The Last Romance, written by acclaimed playwright Joe DiPietro, and the media have converged for a photo call.
The Last Romance is about Ralph, a New Jersey widower who starts up a casual conversation with a woman while sharing a park bench. He falls in love with Carol (Joan Gregson), but she has a secret that could put a spanner in their romance.
Since Ralph’s wife died 12 years ago, his sister Rose (Maralyn Ryan) has fulfilled the housekeeping duties. As family, the siblings love each other, but there is tension between them. Unfortunately this new romance simply fans the flames of uncertainty and discord.
Best known to international audiences as the iconic cross-dressing Klinger in the fictional television series M*A*S*H, Farr has performed at Mayfield Theatre a handful of times. His last gig was several years ago on Tuesdays With Morrie.
Today the elegant, silver-haired actor, known for his impeccable comedic timing, sits on the set’s park bench, a wide smile cracks his face, deepening the well-earned wrinkles.
Gracious to a fault, the Los Angeles-based actor answers every reporter’s question with a twinkle in his eye. With a knack for putting people at ease, Farr distills the Q&A into a conversation as if one is sharing a story with an old friend over a glass of beer.
“He’s a good man. He’s intense and passionate. He’s very meticulous. He’s also very hard on himself, the sign of a true professional. He’s kind and generous and very respectful to other actors,” says Maralyn Ryan, founding artistic director of the St. Albert Children’s Theatre.
Ryan plays the thankless role of Rose and the four-person cast has been in rehearsal for a month – plenty of time to get the measure of a fellow actor.
She affectionately calls Farr the “king of comedy.” In describing his acting style, she says, “He’s kind of a method actor. When he’s in a play he looks different than what he’s like as a person. His persona changes. His voice changes. The way he walks changes. He really does become Ralph.”
Ryan herself is no slouch in the business. As an actor, writer or director, she has worked with every established company in Edmonton, and several that have gone under.
In fact, the Mayfield’s former assistant director Ron Ulrich (now artistic director of Theatre Aquarius in Ontario), tapped Ryan for the role of Rose after remembering her body of work for Phoenix Theatre several decades ago.
Rose is a complicated woman walking a tightrope of emotions, Ryan says.
“Her husband left her 22 years ago and he still sends her letters. She refuses to open the letters. I think that by refusing to acknowledge them she can tell herself he’s coming back.”
Bitter about her lot in life, Rose believes that Ralph’s new relationship may leave her alone again.
“She’s jealous he’s found love and she thinks this woman is a gold digger. Rose thinks Carol is using him and she’s going to protect her brother.”
On the other hand, while Ralph has fallen in love with Carol, he can barely tolerate Rose even though she’s the one who has taken care of him for more than a decade.
“When a new love comes into his life, Rose represents the past and he wants to move on into the future and get married.”
Although Ralph has come to take Rose for granted, he’s still “passionate about life, very direct and very vulnerable. He’s kind, caring and a dreamer.”
When Ryan was asked to sum up the playwright’s intent, she replied, “We need each other. It’s all about the energy between two people. When you cut off the energy between two people, what happens to them? It’s dehumanizing. To be human means to love.”
The Last Romance
Runs until Sunday, Aug. 3
Mayfield Dinner Theatre
16615 – 109 Ave
Tickets: $80 to $90 plus fees. Call 780-483-4051 or online at mayfieldtheatre.ca
This coming Tuesday Farr celebrates his 80th birthday. Anyone who would like to pass on birthday wishes can contact Pam Lewis, company manager at email@example.com.