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Like Stephen Harper, Michael Healey is on a mission

Playwright Michael Healey at the Mirvish Rehearsal Hall prior to the rehearsal of his new play, Proud, in Toronto, September 11, 2012.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Michael Healey will not be stopped. In January, Tarragon Theatre rejected his most recent political satire because, according to Healey, the board of directors feared Stephen Harper might sue. So Healey severed his decade-long relationship with the theatre and is now producing Proud himself – it opens next week in Toronto. He also stars in the production as "the prime minister," a leader with a fresh majority who wants to redefine Canada as a conservative nation.

But that's not all. In June, when Toronto's Factory Theatre fired artistic director Ken Gass in a dispute over how its building should be renovated, Healey helped lead the protest against the firing and called for a boycott. He says he does not understand how any actor, director or designer could currently work for Factory.

Then, in 2011, he persuaded theatres across the country to hold readings of Catherine Frid's Homegrown to protest a cut to the SummerWorks Festival's federal grant, a move many saw as political retaliation for programming a play about a terrorist group.

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Where do these grand gestures of moral certainty come from? To hear Healey tell the story, it all started with his liver.

In 2004, he donated part of his liver to fellow playwright Tom Walmsley, who was suffering from both hepatitis and cirrhosis and was given only months to live. Healey did not know Walmsley well, but Healey's then-partner, theatre director Kate Lynch, was working with Walmsley and was appalled that he was having trouble finding a donor.

"I said, 'That's ridiculous – everybody who knows him should get tested to see if they are a match,' " Healey recalls saying during a recent interview at a Toronto restaurant. "As the words were coming out of my mouth, I thought, 'Now I have to go and see if I am a match.' "

He was, and because his hit play The Drawer Boy was then on tour in the United States, he could afford to take six months off while his liver regenerated after he donated a part to Walmsley.

Today Healey's liver has returned to its original size; Walmsley, meanwhile, requires anti-rejection drugs that suppress his immune system, but he continues to work. Julie Sits Waiting, a chamber opera for which he wrote the libretto, opened Friday in Toronto.

"I feel a quiet pride when Tom produces something else. It's awesome," Healey says, adding that the donation has provided "some would say moral clarity, but in some cases a sort of overly simple, black-and-whiteness to my thinking … That one moral quandary led to an enormous decision. In a lot of ways, my life as a moral person and my life as a moral playwright proceeded from that."

Moral quandaries, Healey believes, are a great source of comedy. And so he wrote the trilogy of socially engaged satires of which Proud marks the conclusion. The first play, Generous, was about the possibility of public service and also included a prime minister, this one about to be booted out of office. The second, Courageous, was about rights and responsibilities, and included a gay judge who refused to marry a gay couple. Now Proud features a Harper-like figure who has risen to power by a sly reading of voter psychology, and who aims to change the nation.

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"I essentially shut down a dinner party the other night when I argued Harper was a patriot," Healey said. "The point of the play," he continued, "is that politics have to be inclusive, and inclusive of that guy, too. There's a reason that [Toronto mayor] Rob Ford can win an election with a two-syllable word: gravy. There's a huge cohort of people who feel isolated from politics. Rob Ford speaks to them; the same is true of Harper."

In this regard, Healey was greatly influenced by work he did recently on another play featuring a prime minister: He adapted the original text for the Shaw Festival's current production of George Bernard Shaw's On The Rocks. In the process he learned that great plays can be driven by ideas rather than characters, but that the ideas have to be compellingly argued.

"The last thing we would want to see is some kind of disembowling of the Prime Minister and right-wing politics. It's such a simple target," explains Miles Potter, who is directing Proud for Healey. "It's exactly like Shaw … Shaw gave everything to the other side, all the best arguments. … That is the joy and danger of this play."

That is also part of the reason Healey the actor had always intended to play the prime minister: "The last thing I wanted to do was keep asking someone to not play it as a villain."

Healey suggests his PM is one of Shaw's strong men, the all-too-convincing capitalists who sway the other characters in those classic political dramas. Was Tarragon convinced by the play? Healey says if artistic director Richard Rose, who has declined to discuss the controversy, had problems with the script itself, he would have said so, just as he had given Healey dramaturgical notes on previous plays. It was the thinly disguised Harper character that troubled the theatre, Healey says.

Healey makes no apology for such aggressive currency: At 49, the playwright is also the father of two-year-old twin girls and the husband of playwright and television writer Morwyn Brebner, a woman who he says shares his appetite for moral simplicity. The playwright is too busy, too certain of his ideas and too impatient for metaphor.

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"Life's too short now," he says. "The Crucible is a great play, but I don't know if I would ever have the energy to construct that play when what I wanted to talk about was McCarthyism."

Haste, conviction and the grand gesture are also in his blood: Healey, who grew up in a big Catholic family in Brockville, Ont., was an altar boy until his mother went back to school to study accountancy.

"My mother's re-entry into the working world coincided with her feminist awakening, which coincided with our summary removal from the Catholic Church when she realized she could never be Pope. There was always a battered copy of The Female Eunuch on top of the toilet in the downstairs bathroom at our house."

Today, Healey is in a hurry to move on.

Armed with legal advice that Proud's satire fell well within acceptable limits, he left his unpaid but privileged post as plawright-in-residence at Tarragon in January. Underwritten in part by Healey and Brebner themselves and also by fundraising readings that supportive theatres held across the country, Proud opens next Saturday. "It became very important to me to produce it before the end of 2012 for two reasons," Healey says. "One was so that I could exploit whatever momentum, press, notoriety."

"The other reason," he added, "is that frankly I just want to get on with my life. I am extremely proud of this play as I was of the others. I want to wrap the trilogy and get on with the next thing."

And no, he does not expect to be getting a letter from Harper's lawyers.

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