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Healey’s 1979 takes Joe Clark’s political philosophy with the utmost seriousness

Joe Clark's very short tenure as Prime Minister of Canada may be the subject of playwright Michael Healey's latest comedy – but that doesn't mean that it treats the cherubic, corduroy-wearing politician as a joke.

While it may include plenty of laugh lines (and a surprisingly sexy encounter with wife Maureen McTeer in the Prime Minister's Office), 1979 – which opens productions at both Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary and Ottawa's Great Canadian Theatre Company this month – takes the political philosophy of the man once mocked as a "Joe Who" who couldn't count with the utmost seriousness.

"What I take to be the central idea of [Healey's] play is that very occasionally a principled politician comes along who sticks to his principles against all odds – and, in this case, it cost him the government," says Eric Coates, who is directing the play in the nation's capital.

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Is it possible that Clark was actually too good for Canada?

Healey – whose last comedy, 2012's Proud, featured a surprisingly generous portrayal of another prime minister, Stephen Harper – doesn't want to lay out the meaning of his new play too clearly.

But he does view the events leading up to the fall of Clark's minority government as a major transformational moment in Canadian history – the quixotic decision to put an unpopular austerity budget to a vote without certainty that it would pass as the "keystone" to all that came after.

"Clark's sort of like Zelig in that he stands at the nexus," says Healey, reached over the phone on his travels back and forth across the country for his play's two-pronged premiere.

If Clark had clung on to power a little longer, we wouldn't have Pierre Trudeau rescinding his resignation as Liberal Party leader, Healey notes – and then we might not get what he calls Trudeau's three most impressive accomplishments: the defeat of René Lévesque in the Quebec referendum, the patriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In this counterfactual Canada, Healey also suggests that Brian Mulroney might have remained in the private sector – and that there might not have been a Reform Party formed in reaction to his brand of politics. That would mean no rise of Harper, either.

Healey has set semi-fictional plays in the world of Canadian politics many times before, but 1979 is the closest he's come to sticking to the truth – save a few poetic liberties taken that he frankly acknowledges in a series of projections that fact-check the production throughout.

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The comedy takes place entirely in the PMO in the hours leading up to the defeat of Clark's budget just six months after coming to power.

Clark is visited by a number of well-known figures, including Flora MacDonald (then secretary of state for external affairs), Trudeau (then leader of the Opposition) and Mulroney (then president of the Iron Ore Co. of Canada).

Finance Minister John Crosbie (who Clark asks to mind his language) makes several memorable appearances – as does another famous conservative, who Healey would like to remain a surprise, for an impromptu debate on policy versus politics.

You might see Clark's attempt to govern as if he had a majority – the Progressive Conservatives only held 136 out 282 seats – as a classic act of hubris, the type of prideful move that comes before the fall of the heroes of Greek tragedies such as Ajax and Oedipus.

But while the structure of Healey's play – which follows the unities of place, time and action – certainly seems Sophoclean, he writes more like Bernard Shaw with swear words.

"Why didn't [Clark] make either political moves to compromise with the Liberals, the NDP or the Social Credit, or procedural moves to delay the vote?" Healey asks. "It really does seem, at this distance, that he took a principled calculation."

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If you're somewhat dubious that a play about a failed federal budget would be – as Healey puts it – "80 minutes of fun," 1979 has nevertheless proved a hot theatrical property. It's rare that a Canadian play premieres in two places almost at once.

That means there are two actors currently rehearsing their Joe Clarks: Philip Riccio, in Calgary; and Sanjay Talwar, in Ottawa.

Riccio admits he was initially a little taken aback when asked to audition for 1979 by Miles Potter – who has directed the world premieres of many of Healey's plays, including his biggest hit, The Drawer Boy.

"Half the people I run into say, 'You're perfect for Joe Clark' – and I get insulted," Riccio says. "There's a blandness to him for sure that you don't necessarily want to be associated with as a performer."

Riccio has since come to admire Clark after researching him and visiting his home town of High River, Alta. (where he struggled to find the mural in his honour). His attempts to meet Clark in person, however, have failed: "He doesn't seem that keen to have the play written about him."

While Riccio gets to play Clark first, it's Talwar who will get to play Clark over the longest period of time – almost as long as his tenure as prime minister. In May, the GCTC production moves to Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for a series of "pop-up" performances around the Shaw Festival ahead of a full run there in October.

Talwar remembers being in grade school when Clark lost his bid for re-election in 1980 – and teasing a 10-year-old who was a vocal Tory supporter at school the next morning. "Clark didn't lose; Canada lost!" the boy said in response.

Nowadays, Talwar wonders if that kid might have had a point. "Whenever you play a character, there's a degree of falling in love with the character you're representing," he says. "I certainly have a lot of respect for the man – and, in terms of the character Michael has created, he's very strong in his beliefs, the last ethical politician in a way."

1979 runs till April 22 at ATP in Calgary (atplive.com), and from April 11 to 30 at GCTC in Ottawa (gctc.ca).

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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