About halfway through the Coterie’s current production of “Tuck Everlasting” is what director Jeff Church calls a classic Gary Neal Johnson moment.
Johnson plays Angus Tuck, whose family has been blessed/cursed with immortality. In the scene he shares a rowboat with an 11-year-old-girl who has stumbled across the clan’s century-old secret.
Old Man Tuck talks about the wheel of life, and how the endless existence faced by his family violates that concept, how natural aging and the ability to grow and change are entwined.
“I can’t imagine anybody shaping that ‘wheel of life’ monologue better than Gary,” says Church, the Coterie’s artistic director.
“He’s a master of language, but he also has a twinkle in his eye. And he adds something special because you can see how much it matters to Pa Tuck — who only has sons — to briefly have this little girl in his life.
“As usual, Gary’s humanity shines through.”
Kansas City doesn’t have an official “dean of actors,” but if it did Johnson would be a prime candidate. He’s been treading the boards here for more than 40 years, playing roles that include King Lear, Julius Caesar, Ebenezer Scrooge, Harry S. Truman, Willy Loman (“Death of a Salesman”) and Tevye (“Fiddler on the Roof”).
He’s been in nearly 200 different productions for most of the city’s professional companies and is in such demand that he’s usually booked a year in advance.
“Tuck Everlasting” represents the first time in nearly 35 years that Johnson has done a show for young audiences.
“Back in the '70s, when I was in my 20s and had just gotten my master’s at UMKC, I did some work for Gene Mackey at Theatre for Young America,” Johnson recalled after a matinee performance (“Tuck Everlasting” runs through April 5 in the theater in the Crown Center Shops).
“I had just gotten married and when Gene asked if I’d like to go on staff, perform in shows, teach classes — in fact I became the company’s publicity director — I jumped at it. For a young actor the prospect of a paycheck every Friday is too much to pass up.”
In 1983 Johnson was cast as the venal and sadistic Squeers in the eight-hour production of “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” mounted by Missouri Repertory Theatre (now Kansas City Rep). His performance announced that here was a talent worth watching.
“Since then I haven’t done any theater for young audiences,” he says. “Until now.”
Johnson hastens to add that he doesn’t change his process or his presentation to suit an audience of children.
“Acting is acting,” he says. “It’s all ‘Look me in the eye and believe what you’re saying.’ You’ve got to be as honest on this stage as you would be in any other theater.
“I’ve seen the graying of the audience at the Rep and the dinner theater and asked myself where the next generation of theater goers is coming from. Well, it starts right here.”
Old hands at the Coterie warned Johnson that young audiences can get restless. That wasn’t a problem at this particular performance.
“We’ve had high schoolers to fourth graders and this show really captured their attention,” Johnson said. “I get the sense of all eyes being on us, all mouths shut. I’ve been delighted with the response.”
So are his fellow players. Nancy Marcy, herself a veteran of decades on Kansas City stages, plays Ma Tuck. She jumped at the chance to finally work with Johnson.
“When Jeff Church called and asked me to be in ‘Tuck’ with Gary I was like, ‘Oh, Lord. YES.’” Marcy said. “He’s wonderful, a real pro, and never does anything phony come out of him.
“He embodies his character but never shows the effort. It makes me feel like I’m a better actor.”
As a youngster Johnson had no particular urge to act. After graduating from Center High School he studied broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri.
“All I knew on the day I graduated was that I didn’t want to be a reporter. I didn’t have what it took to stick a microphone in someone’s face and ask hard questions. So I went into theater. … It was a place to hang out while figuring out what I really wanted to do.”
As it turned out, Johnson was a versatile utility player. He worked 2-1/2 years at the Tiffany’s Attic and Waldo Astoria dinner theaters. “It was a great place to cut my teeth. I played young men. Old men. No women … although I guess I did play one of the ugly stepsisters in a Theatre for Young America show.
“But I was competent. Versatile. That’s when I decided to go to Los Angeles.”
Cracking Tinseltown proved a tough order. After three years of seeking work in Hollywood, Johnson returned to Kansas City and hasn’t looked back.
His reputation is such that he no longer has to audition for roles. Local theater companies come to him. And it’s been decades since he had to keep a day job to support his acting ambitions.
“I’ve always worked more than I wanted to,” Johnson said. "It’s in the nature of most actors to chase that role. If you’re offered a job, by God, take that job.
“Now I’m in a position to be really picky. For example, I won’t do back-to-back plays where you start rehearsing one show the day after closing another. I need the down time.”
The fear early in his career that he didn’t have what it took, that someone would find out he was a phony, no longer gnaws at Johnson.
“I reached the point when I didn’t approach every role with the fear of failure. The time came when it was an adventure. I knew from past experience that I’d find something that worked because I always had.”
Though he’s approaching retirement age, Johnson said he has no plans to pack it in.
“I enjoy being in front of people and having an effect on them. And not just any effect, but a good, positive effect on a group of people night after night after night. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a prime example of that” Johnson has been playing Scrooge in the Rep’s annual holiday show for the last 17 years.
“I’m always asked how I can do it night after night, year after year. Well, it feels good. And as long as someone will pay us to do it…”
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A lover of mystery novels, Johnson compares the creation of a character to solving a mystery.
“OK, here’s the play and here are the clues as to who this person is. But you have lots of latitude to fill in the holes in ways that work for you.
“Who is this guy? What makes him interesting? And also, what is his function in the play? An actor can have a lot of freedom to create, but but only as long as it serves the play.”
And at the end of a performance, Johnson says, he can turn it off and leave the character behind.
“I’m the luckiest actor I know.”