STRATFORD, Ontario — At the age of 82 and with his acting chops and handsome looks singularly unscathed, Christopher Plummer has earned the right to talk of death. If a man can fight back so many of its familiar ravages, you think, he must be a decent guide to handling the inevitable arrival of a compulsory invitation to Hamlet's "undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns."
Plummer's emotionally potent new one-man show "A Word or Two," which opened here Thursday, does not, mercifully, waste its 90 minutes by offering anecdotes of children von Trapp, self-congratulations for being the oldest actor to win an Academy Award, nor tales of the actor's stint on "The Thorn Birds." It is an autobiographical and conversational piece, directed by Des McAnuff with a deft mix of structure-enhancing musicality and simple restraint and themed around Plummer's life-long obsession with words. In the more conventional early sections drawing from Plummer's early life in Toronto and Montreal, it suggests the kind of solo show that many workaholic older actors like to have in their trunks and that can be easily trotted out in fallow months.
But Plummer is far removed from the ordinary, especially in Canada, where he has impeccable roots in its French and English-speaking traditions and where he is a national treasure and a de facto national spokesman in a country that doesn't generally like to speak of itself at all. "I think," Plummer says at one point to a sea of misty Canadian eyes, "it is the constant presence of nature that makes us question who we are."
But Canada is not Plummer's main theme, a few gags notwithstanding ("We live in a country so square, even the female impersonators are women."). His career is international and, as with so many of the writers whose works he has performed for 60 years, his palette existential. Plummer begins in his boyhood, spying Lewis Carroll's "aged, aged man, a sitting on a gate" (it's a quote from "Alice in Wonderland") only to find himself becoming that fellow, being as old age always arrives more quickly than you think.
So what to do? You can't fight it. "No man is rich enough to buy back his own past," Plummer says, quoting Oscar Wilde and lingering on Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet with whom he once hung out with in New York. Love? Plummer calls it "a pleasure of the moment." Religion? "Mostly an excuse for laziness." So with those usual solutions to our existential angst banished from the stage, Plummer's version of Everyman is left, well, mostly with this: "the power of the writer's words make death and decay bearable."
A sop to Stratford Festival's literature-loving demographic and word-bandying critics? Perhaps. But it's an argument with enough rigor that it rings in your head long after the end of the kind of show in which one most frequently sees no argument at all. And because it's full of admonitions, including a deeply moving section concerning the death of Plummer's mother, about how a love of words must be installed while young, the piece also functions with striking intensity as a primer on parenting. It's not a bad thing when an old actor can make his audience want to leave the theater and read to their kids or grandkids.
None of this, of course, would have the same power were not Plummer so formidable a performer, a singular blend of virility, authority and the raw vulnerability you feel you can read behind his eyes. He's one of the greatest living actors, really, and a man who seems, at once, fully knowable and not knowable at all. McAnuff clearly got that: The show is both strikingly intimate and, well, slightly stiff and dignified. It is Christopher Plummer, after all.
Early in the show, Plummer deletes an obscenity that leads him to misquote Philip Larkin. But, toward the end, the actor suddenly admits his own fear of death in raw terms ("I'm scared s---less, I don't mind telling you") and starts to muse on various approaches to his arrival. In the end, he favors a combination of Shakespeare's Mark Antony and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, two men who confronted death head-on with one last, great rush of a spirit unbowed.
"A Word or Two" plays at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Canada, through Aug. 26. Call 800-567-1600 or visit stratfordshakespearefestival.com.