Over nearly two decades of performances, Robert Parks Johnson has become one of Lexington's most respected actors. But even he knew he had to wait for the right time to tackle one of William Shakespeare's most towering challenges: King Lear.
"I've been waiting, waiting to catch up, waiting until I felt like I was ready as an actor and as a man," Johnson says, his thick crown of salt-and-pepper hair and full beard being one indication the time has come.
"The questions he wrestles with are so far beyond the things that a young person encounters," he says. "The kinds of losses he encounters, the intensity of them, the reality of knowing that your mind and your body are failing you, are not working the way that they have, the way that you need them to.
"Hamlet goes to war with himself. Macbeth goes to war with the world. Lear goes to war with the universe, and he takes on the nature of things and says, 'Why? Why?'"
Johnson comes to the role, which he will play Nov. 7 to 16 at Actors Guild of Lexington, after several seasons that would leave most people asking the universe "why?"
In 2010, he was diagnosed with throat cancer and went through the full phalanx of treatment, including surgery and chemotherapy. He is now cancer-free, although he suffered another personal setback recently when he separated from his wife and longtime collaborator, Martha Parks Johnson.
His myriad experiences go into the performance, he says.
"I can't think of an element of human experience that doesn't show up in the play somewhere," Johnson says. "I was thinking I can't think of any part of my life that I haven't brought to the work either. My high school sweetheart is in there, my separation from my wife is in there, my own mental illness is in there.
"I think every role you play, when you come down to it, is a self-portrait ... because that's really all you have. Those are the only colors you have to paint with.
"And it's not just the losses. It's the joys, too. It is the celebrations. It's the resurrection, which I have experienced, personally; the experience of losing everything and finding yourself. Lear doesn't go to the YMCA, but ... ."
Johnson comes to this career milestone in what he says is the best shape of his life, saying he thinks that at 53 he could out-wrestle his 17-year-old self. He is now a long-distance runner — with a lack of toenails to prove it. He works with Silver Sneakers, a long-distance running program for senior adults, and is a trainer with the Live Strong program at the YMCA who works with cancer survivors.
"For a long time I identified myself as 'cancer boy,'" Johnson says. "It was an important part of who I presented myself to be. One thing that the Y has helped me realize, I have something to contribute beyond being this inspiring superhero who survived his battle with the devil. As a trainer, as a teacher, I have competencies I didn't necessarily appreciate.
"I am America's least likely aerobics instructor."
Playing Lear just seems like a natural progression to people who have followed Johnson's stage career. That includes his director in this show, Actors Guild artistic director Eric Seale. He saw Johnson play Lenny in an Actors Guild production of Of Mice and Men when Seale was in high school and still counts it among the best things he has ever seen onstage.
"I have always been super impressed with the guy," Seale says. "He's a giant and has this huge physical presence and always gives these amazing performances."
This is Seale's first time directing a Shakespearean play, and he said the idea of doing it with Johnson appealed to him.
They both share a passion for Shakespeare and a belief that his works should be done regularly and not in a precious way.
"This one is right in my wheelhouse. There's craziness and madness and eyeballs," Seale says, referring to a character whose eyes are gouged out.
Seale also brought the raucous zombie play William Shakespeare's Land of the Dead to Actors Guild last season. Johnson appreciates a raw sensibility with the Bard.
He recalls a director from the Royal Shakespeare Company with whom he worked who said he didn't want to see "any fake British accents or Upstairs Downstairs acting. The England you know is not the England Shakespeare lived in. These people were pirates. These people were cowboys. They took over the damn world; this little island took over the world. They didn't do that by sticking out their pinkies and sipping their tea. They were monstrous people."
But that does not mean Johnson does not have immense respect for the Bard's work and the role he has been given.
"You learn things from playing in Will's world that you can't learn anywhere else: the power of the words, when you have a great script how little you have to do, and the honor," Johnson says. "It's an honor to be part of a masterpiece. It's a holy thing."
IF YOU GO
What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of William Shakespeare's play.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 7-9, 14-16; 2 p.m. Nov. 10.
Where: Actors Guild of Lexington, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and senior adults, $10 military. Available at Actors-guild.com and 1-866-811-4111.