Over lunch last week, I asked actor Stephen Ouimette, who is simply extraordinary as Harry Hope in Robert Falls' Goodman Theatre production of "The Iceman Cometh," how many seasons he has performed at the Stratford Festival in Canada, where he is a marquee name.
"Nineteen," he said. "But they are not consecutive. I think that is important to note. It has been important for me to be there, but not just there."
Ouimette is not there this summer; his appearance in "Iceman" in Chicago took him out of the running for the entire Stratford summer season, even though "Iceman" closes June 17. (The prospects for Broadway next season are, I hear, looking very good.) "Stratford will be there," he said. "The chance to do 'Iceman' may not. I am terrified at letting myself be too insular."
There's no question that Ouimette is royalty when it comes to Canadian theater actors. And he's very much a part of the Ontario ecosystem — he has lived outside Stratford for many years in the middle of a 42-acre forest.
He has played many of the major roles in the Shakespearean canon, including Hamlet and Richard III. He has done many new plays in Toronto. And he became known to broader North American audiences when he showed up as the artistic-director character (a dead one, in later seasons) in the Canadian TV show "Slings and Arrows," a satire based on the Stratford Festival that did not go down well with some from the festival.
But over the past few years, Ouimette (who is very much alive at 54) has worked more and more in New York and, especially, in Chicago. It is by design, part of Ouimette's attempt to "get curious" and put himself out there. There was "La Bete" on Broadway, alongside Mark Rylance. There were "Troilus and Cressida" and "The Taming of the Shrew," replete with the infamous Neil LaBute prologue, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. And now there is "Iceman" at the Goodman. I saw all of the above, and he has excelled on every occasion.
I suggested that he must be a very skilled picker of projects.
"The thing about getting older," he said, "is that you finally realize that the most important thing is who you are working with. None of the rest of it — fame, money — matters at all. If you're unhappy and want to kill your co-star, then you might as well be working in a factory."
Ouimette is in "Iceman," he thinks, largely courtesy of Brian Dennehy, an American actor with a Stratford habit. The two appeared last season in Canada in both "Twelfth Night" and "The Homecoming."
"I think Brian strongly suggested I might be right for this part," Ouimette said. The evidence shows that Dennehy was right: In a sea of extraordinary performances, Ouimette might well be doing the best work of all. Especially for a guy who has never before done anything byEugene O'Neill.
"This is a mammoth endeavor," Ouimette says, even though he's done more than his share of epics. "You don't get out of the theater until midnight, which knocks you off the usual decompression schedule, unless you want to kill the entire next day, which doesn't work. People are starting getting ready around 2 p.m. to mentally prepare to head into the theater. Really, it's incredibly rare to get a group of actors like this together on one project. It's almost unheard of, actually. But this is that project for me."
I asked Ouimette what he was thinking about his character as he sits inside his shoes night after night, for almost five hours. The other characters, after all, are customers of the joint. Harry Hope actually buys and sells the booze that gets poured down their throats.
"I've thought a lot about my grandfather actually," he said, "and what it is like to come to a new country. But for Harry, as for Jimmy Tomorrow, these are men who mostly just want to be able to drink with their friends."
Ah yes, the booze. Ouimette laughed. "I think it is well understood that the people involved in this have a lot of experience with that. Everybody knows what it's like to be drunk. It's been like, we all know that, now move on. But it is a play that makes you want to drink. You want a cocktail but you don't."
I tell Ouimette I have long wanted to stick an errant "l" in the middle of his name; sometimes I have. His family name once included the letter.
"I just saw that boat on the river, 'Ouilmette,'" he said. "That stopped me in the tracks. I'm sure Ouilmette and Wilmette are just the Canadian Ouilmettes, who kept on going to Chicago."
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