American playwright David Mamet's characters are often of the rough-and-tumble variety, flawed individuals who have to make ugly compromises just to survive in the world.
Shelley "The Machine" Levene is no exception.
An aging real estate salesman whose former success is not just fading but going down the toilet, Levene is a tragic cornerstone of Mamet's award-winning 1982 play Glengarry Glen Ross, a show about the brutal inhumanity of the cutthroat business world and the second installment in Actors Guild of Lexington's latest season.
Actor Robert Parks Johnson, who plays Levene, is no stranger to hard knocks.
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When he lost his middle-management job at a manufacturing company during 2008's economic downturn, he began selling insurance, a close cousin to Levene's trade as a real estate salesman.
"I was a terrible salesman," Johnson, 50, says.
Calling his insurance career "an expensive experiment," Johnson drained all of his savings just trying to keep the venture afloat, and he ended up netting only a few hundred dollars before calling it quits.
He then took a stint as a telemarketer, lasting only a couple of weeks, before he eventually accepted a minimum-wage job at a local grocery store.
"I loved it," he says. "I loved working with the public, loved every day but payday."
His contentment was short-lived.
In March 2010, Johnson discovered a lump on his neck. He was diagnosed with throat cancer.
Bad news, tough choices
Suddenly, life's hard knocks were not just about money and making ends meet. They were a matter of life and death.
Faced with a daunting treatment regimen, Johnson had to make some tough choices.
"When they told me I had cancer and described what my treatment was going to be like, the first thing I had to do was to make a decision," he says. "Do I want to try to fight this, or would it just be easier on everybody if I let the disease run its course?
"Since I have spent most of my life living with clinical depression, this was a more complicated question for me than it would probably be for a healthier person. I had to ask myself, 'What do I have to live for? What is there in my life that's worth the cost of trying to beat cancer?' I came up with two answers: I want to grow old with my wife, and I want to act again."
The hopes of a return to the stage helped him to make a decision that his treatment cruelly demanded: the choice between losing his voice or losing his teeth.
A 40-year theater veteran, Johnson sacrificed his teeth in the hope that his voice would again project lines one day.
In addition to his hair, teeth and income, Johnson eventually lost his health insurance, an ironic blow to the former insurance salesman, and one with harrowing emotional and financial ramifications.
Johnson did have some support, though.
When word spread of his condition and his inability to pay necessary medical expenses, the theater community rallied around him, collaborating with his church to establish a fund to help pay his treatment costs.
"We take care of our own in the theater community because a lot of times there's no one else to," says Actors Guild's artistic director, Eric Seale.
"We're all always going to argue with each other about different things," Seale says of the personal and professional differences among those in theater. "That's never going to go away, but when a theater brother or sister is in need, we watch out for them.
"There wasn't a person in the theater community who didn't either give money or go out and raise it and try to offer some kind of assistance," he says.
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Local theaters set up benefit performances, and Johnson kept busy helping others the only way he knew how. Inspired by Lance Armstrong's and Robert Schimmel's books about beating cancer, Johnson started to document his fight with cancer on his blog, Fat Man Running (Pennsyrunning.blogspot.com).
"I started blogging about my experience of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy because I wanted people to know what it's like to go through all that," says Johnson, who had been a contributing arts writer at the Herald-Leader before he became ill. "When you're facing the inbound end of that tunnel, it can be terrifying."
Johnson's blog proved to be a mesmerizing read, unabashedly personal and deep, full of pathos and inspiration. He quickly gained a readership that bolstered his support network further, and in the meantime, the theater community helped Johnson buy dentures.
"I have teeth today because the generosity of the Lexington theater community paid for them," Johnson says. "I owe the theater a great deal."
Back to the stage
Late last year, Johnson began winning his fight with cancer, and he was eventually declared cancer-free.
He immediately went back to acting, playing a histrionic serial killer in a staged reading of the musical No Way to Treat a Lady. Director J. Michael McCullough and Johnson's cast mates worked at a patient pace while Johnson got his strength back, grew new hair and got used to singing and projecting with dentures.
With No Way to Treat a Lady under his belt as a gentle stepping stone toward full recovery, Johnson attended Actors Guild's open-season auditions, and he landed his first post-cancer role in a main stage production.
The fact that his return to the stage is with AGL makes his triumph even sweeter, he says.
"Actors Guild has brought me back to life a couple times in a couple different ways," says Johnson, who moved to Lexington in 1994, when AGL tapped him as its technical director.
"The whole time I was sick, I'd be lying in bed, the thought I kept hanging onto was that I wanted to act again and I wanted to do it at AGL," Johnson says.
Like Levene, Johnson's character, both he and AGL have had to struggle to make it these past couple of years, but Johnson's recovery and the financially struggling AGL's revival in a new theater space is a parallel that is not lost on him.
"I'm just so grateful to be working, so grateful to be a part of it," Johnson says.
"The other day, I'm driving to technical rehearsal, which is a traditional nightmare — everybody hates tech rehearsal — and I'm just weeping in the car. I called a friend who was a cancer survivor just to tell him how happy I was," he says.
"It's a cliché, you know, but having been as close to death as I was and to be alive, I just feel like I drink it in, I just take in how beautiful it is to watch people work hard and make theater."