Brian Dennehy, a craggy giant in a navy golf shirt and salmon-pink shorts, slumps low in a chair in a lounge of the Stratford's Festival Theatre and shuts his eyes.
Although it's late morning, the beloved American actor was up till the wee hours the previous night celebrating the wedding of his daughter Kathleen – a shindig held in the nearby town of St. Marys to accommodate his Stratford schedule. By Dennehy's account, it was a blast. The 73-year-old even risked his wonky knees, the result of youthful football injuries, to do a little dancing with the bride.
"I had to do that so they could take pictures," he grins, eyes still closed.
But now he's mentally shifting gears as he prepares to go from real-life father of a functional family to the fictional sire of a dysfunctional one. He's starring as Max, the bitterly aging retired butcher who nominally presides over a household of surly adult sons, in Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. The play, Stratford's and Dennehy's first shot at Pinter, opens Thursday in the festival's Avon Theatre.
Joining him onstage – and also for this interview – is Stephen Ouimette, who plays Sam, Max's chauffeur brother and long-suffering foil. It's not the only time the two men share the stage at Stratford this season. In the Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night, which opened last month, Dennehy is cast as the boozing, scheming Sir Toby Belch and Ouimette is his weedy sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek
"We're joined at the hip this year," jokes the lean, long-faced Ouimette.
"Laurel and Hardy," Dennehy adds with a gruff laugh.
Although you can't imagine Laurel and Hardy exchanging the acid remarks that pass between Max and Sam in Pinter's dark comedy-drama.
The Homecoming, first produced in London in 1965, is one of the late British playwright's masterpieces and bears all the hallmarks of what has come to be called "Pinteresque." That includes its portrayal of relationships as ongoing power struggles. Widowed Max fights to retain some authority in his North London home, but he's long lost the battle to his sons Lenny the pimp (Aaron Krohn) and Joey the boxer (Ian Lake). He takes out much of his frustration on Sam, a lifelong bachelor who clings desperately to his reputation as the best driver in his firm.
But Sam can give as good as he gets. "There are a helluva lot of ugly skeletons in all the closets of Max's life," Dennehy says. "Sam knows the truth and uses that truth as a rapier. He comes out every once in a while from the kitchen, stabs Max with it, and then retreats."
"Only when provoked," Ouimette says with a smile.
The family's power games get a shake-up when Max's oldest boy, Teddy (Mike Shara), returns after a six-year absence in the United States, bringing his beautiful and enigmatic wife, Ruth (Cara Ricketts). She upsets the balance in the all-male ménage, proving more than a match for any of them.
"It's a fascinating play," Dennehy says, describing Pinter's style as "a nightmare version of naturalism. There's certainly a lot of Ibsen and Strindberg in it, and some O'Neill, but it's mostly pure Pinter. And it's very hard to do. Not for him," he adds, nodding at classical veteran Ouimette, who is marking his 18th Stratford season. "He's an amazingly talented guy. It's like he hits the right button and it comes out perfectly."
Dennehy is being modest. His theatre accolades include two best-actor Tony Awards for Broadway revivals of Death of a Salesman (1999) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (2003). Although he first became famous as a Hollywood character actor in the 1980s ( First Blood, Silverado, Cocoon), since the nineties he's established himself as a stage dynamo.
This is Dennehy's second season at Stratford. He was lured to the 2008 festival by artistic director Des McAnuff, where he first acted with Ouimette in All's Well That Ends Well and enjoyed a smash success with the double bill of Eugene O'Neill's Hughie and Samuel Beckett's Krapp's Last Tape. Toronto director Jennifer Tarver, the rising star who directed Krapp's, is also helming The Homecoming.
Dennehy was thrilled to return to the festival. "It's a great place to work. And there are three or four of the best actors I have ever seen or worked with here. And" – another nod to Ouimette – "he's one of them."
Clearly his appetite for theatre hasn't decreased, though he admits age is catching up with him. "At 73, everything is harder. Learning lines, moving around …"
Ouimette cuts in: "That's all we ever say to each other, 'How's your back today? How are your knees?'"
"He's younger than I am," Dennehy says of his 57-year-old colleague. "He's like a leaping gnome compared to me. I'm more like a garden gnome."
The Homecoming opens Thursday and runs until Oct. 30 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Special to The Globe and Mail