Nicola Cavendish is talking about dirt and life and death and winding down her career.
She’s in a deeply reflective mood, in part because of the smoky haze—“the pall”, she calls it with signature flourish—that’s set in over Horseshoe Bay, the spot from which she’s speaking to the Straight over the phone.
But the iconic actor’s state of mind comes mostly from rehearsing her new role in Daniel McIvor’s Canadian classic Marion Bridge. Almost four years ago, she saw it performed by community players in her hometown of Penticton, and it’s taken her this long to assemble the right team to stage it at West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Centre. Her long-time collaborator Roy Surette directs, and Vancouver artist Tiko Kerr creates the sets, while Lynda Boyd and Beatrice Zeilinger play older and younger sisters, both dealing with their own demons, to Cavendish’s middle sibling, Theresa.
“I was so taken by the simple beauty of the piece in terms of story and the characters that he had on-stage,” the veteran talent relates of the play, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. “It touches on so many aspects of people’s lives—how we live our short lives. And dying.”
In the drama about three sisters who come home to Cape Breton to care for their dying mother, Theresa is a Catholic farm-order nun. And the role has her thinking not only of the garden she loves to dig into now, but of her years growing up amid the orchards of the Okanagan. “I love the earth, I love dirt. My brother was always fortifying the dirt around the cherry and peach trees, and there was always the cycle of life and death,” she recalls. Digging the earth is a simple pleasure her character, who’s starting to question her own faith, appreciates. “All the words that come out of her mouth are words I would be happy to have come out of my mouth.”
At the same time, Cavendish has a close friend who is in a hospice, measuring her life in days, the way the matriarch in Marion Bridge is. That has Cavendish contemplating the meaning of life, and how to live it to its fullest. And she candidly admits she’s thinking Marion Bridge might be a great show to go out on.
“I’m getting older and I want to go out while the party is still hot and steamy and sweaty,” she explains, admitting she’s turned down several strong roles offered to her from across Canada recently. “I really think I’m there; I’m ready to be unobligated, not obliged to work anymore,” she adds.
She started considering retiring after a challenging role she took in the critically lauded The Humans, which played in Winnipeg earlier this year, took a toll she wasn’t expecting,
“I thought, ‘Wow, this is bigger than I am,’” says Cavendish, who brought in her sister from Pender Island to help her prepare for the demanding role of the play’s matriarch. “Right up to opening night, I was in a new kind of zone I’d never been in before, one of doubt and fear. Fear sat on my shoulder that first night.”
Stage fright, in an actor famous for carrying the solo hit Shirley Valentine single-handedly for so many years? Apparently, it can hit at any time in your career.
“I thought, ‘I don’t want to go through that again,’ ” Cavendish explains. “It’s propelled me into a true examination of the writing on the wall—that at 65 life is galloping more than it ought to.”
Playing Theresa seems to have brought her a calm, however, a feeling propelled by her desire to help the Kay Meek build a strong theatre audience. But she’s already thinking about what she might do after Marion Bridge. And not surprisingly, it has to do with the dirt and the land.
“I love living,” she says. “I love it when I’m in the garden making a big fat mess of it, and that’s what I want to make of it.”
Marion Bridge is at the Kay Meek Centre from next Wednesday (September 5) to September 20.