It’s been years in the making, but the Citadel production, Make Mine Love, will finally come to fruition this month. The play, set in 1938, is Edmonton playwright Tom Wood’s baby – his love letter to the glamorous Hollywood film era of the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Wood started writing the play about five years ago. The comedy centres on two characters, played by Rebecca Northan and John Ullyatt, both recruited by Wood. “Tom said he was writing my character with me in mind to play it before I even saw any of it,” says Ullyatt, who plays Hale Lane, a rakish, self-destructive actor past his prime. “The character is a guy who has gotten through life on charm and good looks. Everything has been too easy for him.”
Northan, an actor and improviser based in Calgary, was handpicked for the part of Lily Arlen, the ex-wife of Ullyatt’s character. “I was very, very flattered and incredibly excited,” she says. “I love that period of women in comedy. The costume design [by Cory Sincennes] is amazing, so I get to wear a lot of amazing costumes. I really wanted to work with Bob [Baker] and Tom.”
To research her role as a Hollywood film starlet, Northan read the biography of 1930s actor Bette Davis, and watched several biographical movies of Hollywood starlets from that era. “The challenge with my character, Lily, is finding the balance between the tough exterior and the incredibly fragile interior,” she says.
While the play is a comedy, it is not one of the light and fluffy variety, says Northan.
“It’s a comedy with a ton of heart, real human pain beneath it. It’s something that I think is really beautiful about Tom’s writing,” she says. “The audience is going to laugh at some of the pure comedic moments, but we’re also going to recognize the love and loss.”
Northan has never worked with Ullyatt on a scripted play before, though they have known each other for many years and have done improv together. “Rebecca is great,” says Ullyatt. “She got [her character] right off the bat. She’s a sassy, fast-talking dame. She’s perfect for it. We hit it off right away. It’s just easy with her. When you work with someone, you have to be intimate together.”
“John and Rebecca are such a stunning pairing,” says Baker, who is directing the cast of 10.
Baker, artistic director of the Citadel, also happens to be Wood’s husband, which brings a unique dynamic to the production.
“Those guys, they are partners, so they have their lingo together,” says Ullyatt, who has worked with Baker many times in the past 15 years. “But they are always forthcoming with what is required from the script.”
“They’re fantastic. They are very generous. They want to hear the impressions of the actors in the room,” says Northan of the writer-director duo. “To be honest, Bob and Tom did so much work on the script before the actors ever touched it, that it’s been a dream to work on. Tom’s been writing this play for five years. It is an incredibly mature and realized script, so it makes our jobs as actors more exciting. It’s got a lot of depth.”
Baker has been with Wood for 43 years. “It doesn’t always make it easy, but certainly we have a similar experiential base, similar work ethic, similar aesthetic. You do establish a shared vocabulary,” Baker says.
That’s not to say it’s not without its challenges. “It’s hard when you take the work home because you have no one to complain to at home! We can’t really complain to each other about each other. So we just keep the work at work,” says Baker. “On the other hand, we can discuss things in the car and on the way to work. You totally can finish each other’s thoughts and sentences but you need to keep objectivity.”
For the pair, there was never any doubt that they would come together on this project. “It was pretty much understood that if Tom writes something new that I would be the most likely person to bring it to the stage,” says Baker. “It’s very important for a writer to trust a director when he hands his piece over. I get the layers that Tom has tried to – I’ve directed a lot of his work – get across. It’s a comedy, it’s highly theatrical but it’s also got a very emotional base.”