Of David Garrick, titan of the 18th-century London theater, his contemporary Thomas Wilkes once said: “Whenever I see him perform a role I never see HIM.” According to the literary scholar Leo Damrosch, Wilkes meant that “you could see Garrick in the same role many times, and still be overwhelmed.”
There is another sense in which Wilkes’s remark can be construed: You can watch an actor many times in a role and be quite sure the man himself is, in person, very little like the character – the him -- he is portraying. So it proved when, after having watched Edmund Donovan four times perform Joe in Greater Clements, I sat down with the actor to talk and discovered a person quite unlike the troubled 27-year-old of playwright Samuel D. Hunter’s imagination.
This is not to slight Joe and Edmund’s commonalities, chief of which is that actor and character are essentially the same age. But whereas Joe is a Westerner, not highly educated, and struggling to find his place in the world, Edmund is a New Englander, well-educated (Boston University, Yale), and enamored of acting since childhood.
“When I was in second grade, we all did the school play,” Donovan told me. “I was really into it. I loved telling stories – I’ve always been a very narrative-oriented person.” Having spent his first 7 years in Connecticut, followed by 3 years in England, and a return to Massachusetts, where he had been born, Donovan embarked upon the theater circuit. “In Massachusetts,” he said, “there’s this thing called the Drama Guild Festival. It’s a competition of one-acts. I got to travel around the state, seeing other folks’ plays. I always felt so welcome in the theater world and so free.”
Donovan said he took theater seriously “but didn’t realize where it was all headed until I was a junior in high school and my acting teacher said I could apply to a conservatory program. That was a revelation. Until then my connection to the profession came partly from Shakespeare. I’d read a lot of him but didn’t understand his work well and how he falls into theater tradition.” He added: “My first professional job after Boston University was doing the Scottish play at the Actors Shakespeare Project, in Boston.” At Yale, Donovan played Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice, Demetrius and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Bianca in Othello.
Other professional work includes The Snow Geese, on Broadway and Hunter’s Lewiston/Clarkston, at New York’s Rattlestick Theater, in 2018, for which Donovan nabbed a Drama Desk nomination. For the performance he received the Clive Barnes Theatre Award, bestowed annually on one person in theater and another in dance who have shown exceptional promise. Given the generous plaudits Donovan has received for Greater Clements it is fair to say that the promise is being realized.
Donovan compared his roles in the Hunter dramas. “In Lewiston/Clarkston, I played a character called Chris. He is very precocious and a kind of antithesis to Joe in Greater Clements. And yet both are struggling with a sense of isolation and with being understood.” Like many of Hunter’s characters, their anxieties are not small. And those of Donovan himself? “A lot of anxieties and existential questions that I might have otherwise tend to go away when I’m fortunate to work on a play like this, a play that I really believe in. I’m very lucky: I get a deep sense of purpose out of working.”
Donovan’s sense of purpose has early roots: a close family (supportive parents and three siblings). His sense of technique was honed at Yale. He studied Alexander Technique there with Jessica Wolf. “She had a concept that has been useful to me: ‘the breathing costume.’ That refers to the kind of breathing that an actor puts on to play a character. Jessica said that an actor should think about the way a character’s breathing is different from the actor’s own. How do they breathe when they’re happy, when they’re with their mother, when they’re listening to music?”
To play Joe, Donovan’s breathing costume is as distinctive as the oversize denim shorts the character wears. At both the beginning of Greater Clements (down in the mine) and at the end (which I can’t reveal), Joe breathes heavily. As for the scenes in-between, Donovan said, “Joe is seeing a psychiatrist. I imagined that the doctor has been helping him with his breathing, to deal with stress.”
Donovan has been carried along in the sweep of his performance by the kindness of colleagues. Of the ensemble, Donovan said, “We’re having a lot of fun backstage, which is crucial when you’re doing such a dramatic story eight times a week.” Of Davis McCallum, the director of Lewiston/Clarkson and Greater Clements, Donovan said: “He’s been very patient and I’m honored to be working with him for a second time.” And of Judith Ivey, who plays Maggie, Joe’s mother,” Donovan said: “I am too young to have seen much of her earlier work but still she has long existed as this mythological figure in my mind. I wrote her a note recently and said that when I graduated from Yale two years ago if someone had told me that I’d be working with her now I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Ivey and Donovan provide a nightly reminder how older and younger artists – how older and younger people – can, if they remain permeable, absorb from each other. Donovan added: “I learn a lot from watching Judy handle the work every night, how she travels on the emotional wave she has to ride. Her character may be overwhelmed, but miraculously she never is.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com