An Anonymous Gift

One of my favorite artists died two months ago and I’m still thinking about it.  I never met John Rousseau, who peacefully passed away in his sleep on July 2 at the age of 64, but two of his performances still linger in my mind, nearly a decade after having seen them.  Rousseau was one of the mainstays of PacRep in Carmel, not only as an actor and director but also as a light and sound designer and a builder of stage sets.  I came to appreciate Rousseau’s brilliance over the course of two summers: in 2002, when he portrayed Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and in 2003’s beautiful production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a powerful piece of chamber theatre about ghosts, hidden wounds, and vulnerability.

The dictionary defines a weir as “a barrier or dam to restrain water,” and the metaphor is apt for McPherson’s 1997 play about characters who hold in their emotions in order to survive.  One night, at a small pub in rural Ireland, a boozy group of men try to impress Valerie, a newcomer from Dublin, with some neighborhood stories tinged with the supernatural.  As it turns out, she has a ghost story of her own, one considerably more serious, involving the death of a child.  The mood in the bar changes, and a man named Jack, played in that 2003 production by Rousseau, is prompted to share his own story.

Jack is a gruff mechanic, “an auldfella,” he calls himself, who lives alone on the outskirts of town.  Valerie asks him, do you wish you had married?  “Sure who’d have me?” he replies.  “A cantankerous old fucker like me.”  But beneath his rough exterior and all his talk about “freedom” and “independence,” Jack is a deeply lonely man, full of barely disguised hurt and yearning.  The story he tells to Valerie and the others involves a woman he was with as a youth; after they’d been together for awhile, she wanted to move to the city.  Jack chose to stay where he was.  She becomes engaged to another man, and as a guest at their wedding, Jack is struck by the realization that he no longer matters to her.

I can still remember, nearly a decade on, how meticulously Rousseau brought us into the character of Jack, whose layers of self-protection gradually disappear as he tells his story.  “And she just looked at me like I was only another guest at the wedding,” Jack says.  “And that was that.  And the future was all ahead of me.  Years and years of it.  I could feel it coming.  All those things you’ve got to face on your own.  All by yourself.  And you bear it ‘cause you’re showing everybody that you’re a great fella altogether.  But I left the church like a little boy.”

Jack goes to a nearby pub, where the barman senses Jack’s troubled mood.  “And the barman asked me if I was alright?  Simple little question.  And I said I was.  And he said he’d make me a sandwich.  And I said okay.  And I nearly started crying—because, you know, here was someone just ... and I watched him ... I’ll never forget it ... And, just someone doing this for me.  And putting it down in front of me ...  And I took this sandwich up and I could hardly swallow it, because of the lump in my throat.  But I ate it all down because someone I didn’t know had done this for me.”

In this, the play’s crucial scene, Rousseau conveyed with heartbreaking accuracy the looming gap between Jack’s self-isolation, his low opinion of himself, and his need, his burning hunger, for connection.  For all these years later, Jack, too, is haunted by a ghost: the ghost of his younger self who chose solitude over love and is still living with the consequences.

Rousseau bared the raw and broken heart of a broken man in that production, just as he did in Henry IV when Falstaff is spurned by Prince Hal and banished, their old friendship cast aside for the sake of ambition.  I still recall the tears in Rousseau’s eyes, glittering in the stage lights, when Falstaff realizes that his friend and companion, on his way to becoming king, no longer has room in his heart for him, for their old wild and rollicking ways.  It was more than acting, it was life, it was real, and it was thrilling.

I always assumed that some day I would find the opportunity to tell Rousseau just how much his performances meant to me.  Now that won’t happen.  Artists, writers, musicians, actors may never know how much their work has touched another.  Sometimes art is like that sandwich given to Jack: an anonymous gift that nourishes beyond all measure.  Rousseau’s deeply memorable performances manifested a rare alchemy of vulnerability and craft, sensitivity and skill—a model for all performers and creative artists.  I’m grateful to have witnessed his artistry.  Rest in peace, John Rousseau, and thank you.