It takes a lot of chutzpah to play John Hirsch at the theatre he co-founded, and just down the block from the building that is named after him - outside which stands a statue of the visionary man himself.
Fortunate, then, that Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson's bio-play Hirsch, performed solo by Nashman at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse, is as tightly written and smoothly performed as it is.
Hirsch was the Hungarian Jewish refugee who survived the Holocaust and made his home in Winnipeg because, he reasoned, being in the middle of the continent, it was about the safest place he could find. But he brought with him wild, dangerous ideas about the vitality of the arts in a culture, and the notion that Canadians were ready to create a genuinely Canadian theatre. That led him and Tom Hendry to co-found Canada's first regional theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, in 1958.
From here, he went on to stardom at the Stratford Festival and in New York, and even heading up the CBC's drama department, earning his reputation as one of the most important figures in Canadian cultural history.
All of these are the biographical details that unfold - not so much in that chronological order - in Hirsch. But its real success is in revealing the man behind the icon - one who could be “prickly” at best, tyrannical at worst, and was haunted by the demons of his youth, but was nonetheless brilliant, passionate, and fiercely committed to his artistic vision.
Nashman and Thompson treat Hirsch with reverence through their irreverence. Fittingly for a man whose mission was tearing down old cultural institutions to build new ones, they don't hold Hirsch up as a stoic icon, but present him as a man - one who's not above directing his actors by belittling them, or telling the CBC why they shouldn't hire him, or complaining that the piece of pie he's been served at a New York restaurant is too small.
Nashman and Thompson (the latter a Canadian theatre legend himself, as the co-founder of Toronto's famed Theatre Passe Muraille) also avoid the pitfall of the linear bio-play by weaving in another story - that of Nashman wrestling, at one point quite literally, with the imposing figure of Hirsch. As he struggles to come to an understanding of the man, we're enlightened in the process.
It's an inventive approach to biography (not all of which works perfectly - a musical ditty about Winnipeg's cold and mosquitoes hits some too-well-trod notes, for example).
Nashman's performance, though, is riveting throughout. He endeared himself immediately to his opening night crowd by starting with a spot-on impression of Tom Hendry - after whom the Warehouse is now named - and never let go of our attention. Playing everyone from himself to Hirsch to Hirsch's grandmother to his lover Bryan, Nashman moves fluidly from character to character, imbuing each with authenticity in his fantastically energetic, 90-minute solo performance.
Altogether, it makes for a suitably engaging and nuanced tribute to a giant of Canada's cultural scene, a touching love letter to theatre itself, and a welcome homecoming for John Hirsch.
Hirsch runs at the RMTC Tom Hendry Warehouse until Dec. 14.