Fresh out of Corner Gas , Eric Peterson has hit the ground running as Shelley (the Machine) Levene, a character created 25 years ago but with a lot to say to the aging and struggling workers of today. A purveyor of property, peddling the American dream, once atop the ranks of a Chicago real-estate office but now fallen on hard times and desperate for income, Levene is abrasive, profane, but intrinsically sympathetic.
Not least to Peterson.
"The pain of that - I suppose I can relate to that. As you get older, you have to face the manifestations of decline," Peterson says, relaxing in the library of Toronto's Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
Peterson is making his Soulpepper debut in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross , the first of three appearances he will make with the Toronto theatre company this season. It marks the first time he has been free for Soulpepper's spring-summer run since he took up work as the crotchety Oscar on the television hit Corner Gas six years ago.
Mamet wrote Glengarry in 1982 and dedicated it to fellow playwright Harold Pinter, who was instrumental in arranging the play's premiere at London's National Theatre. It was later nominated for four Tony Awards and in 1984 earned Mamet a Pulitzer Prize, but two-and-a-half decades later the economic uncertainty of that era resonates more strongly than ever.
In Peterson's mind, Mamet penned the play as a reaction to Reaganomics and its impact on relationships and personalities. "So it's kind of timely now, since we've seen down the line what these economics have led to," Peterson says.
In the midst of global turmoil brought about in part by bundles of toxic mortgages, Peterson is relishing the play's treatment of property in all its nobility and disgrace. In a sense, he says, the "mystique of selling real estate, of property and selling - period" has been "the central tenet of [American]culture." The play's characters, Levene included, he adds, are "arguably on the shadier, greyer" side of the real-estate world, lying, cheating and stealing their way to commissions.
"But again, on another level, this sense of, 'I sell a house that becomes a home to a family, that becomes a community, that becomes a country that is the leading country in the world' - it's also a worthwhile dream. So I'm enjoying the play that way, too."
It's kind of timely now, since we've seen down the line what these economics have led to.
Peterson had never seen Glengarry staged, but did watch the 1992 film version, whose cast includes Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alan Arkin, and Jack Lemmon as Levene. The late Lemmon was "an actor I totally respected," Peterson says. Lemmon's character was the Levene that Peterson knew, but is decidedly not the one he has adopted. He feels the technical mastery of Mamet's writing virtually compels him to play the aging salesman a certain way.
"The punctuation, the italic signs, the dashes - his demands on the actor not to [expletive]around with this is very strong. How he wants it done is very clear. Sometimes it's irksome, but when you get the meaning of it, it's almost impossible not to do it that way," he says.
Mamet's style "sort of poses as naturalism," the ostensibly normal talk and colloquial cynicism hiding the measured technicality of the script. It was thought so distinctive that a term with Orwellian echoes was coined to describe it: Mametspeak. "It's very engineered, very considered. There's a rhythm and a poetics to it that belies this [feeling of]off-the-cuff improvising," Peterson says, likening it to a piece of difficult music.
Another aspect of the play's language - the overbearing, profanity-laden hubris of the dialogue - has thoroughly entertained Peterson throughout rehearsals. "I'm finding, as a Canadian actor, and the kind of Canadian actor I am, it's challenging to be aggressive in that way," he says, before launching into an analysis of the satisfaction of barking one of the play's most vulgar oaths with the widened vowels of a Chicago accent and total confidence in the intent to offend.
Peterson's transition from playing the father of a small-town Saskatchewan gas-station proprietor to assuming the role of an American big-city salesman mirrors the huge change in the actor's working life as he moves from serialized TV back to the live stage. He describes having a steady TV series as "a kind of heaven" - and losing it as being "kicked out of the Garden of Eden, into the harsh realities of the ditch," economically speaking.
But there's a changing quality to live theatre that Peterson finds intoxicating, and his "habit of the theatre" has lured him back: It tends to be more challenging, he notes, and is doubly alluring in that it's hard to get it entirely right on any given night. As technology rapidly alters the landscape of screen acting, he says, "the elements of live performance become more and more special to me.
"The aspect of sitting in a room watching live people be brave onstage … by people being brave sitting in the audience and willing to dare their minds and hearts to join in on this, is quite a remarkable experience now as far as our common humanity goes."
Indeed, after working flat-out for weeks, he says he is "just barely keeping slightly ahead of" the play's demands. "But when it starts to cook, when we can actually all stay on the rails, man it's quite exciting out there. Because it's like a war zone."
Glengarry Glen Ross is running at Toronto's Young Centre until May 9.