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Mundelein actor relishes life on stage

The cast Court Theatre's James Joyce's 'The Dead.' | Phoby Michael Brosilow

The cast of Court Theatre's James Joyce's "The Dead." | Photo by Michael Brosilow

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‘The Dead’

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 9


(773) 753-4472;

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Updated: December 6, 2012 6:10PM

This past year has been much the same as the past 24 for Mundelein’s Philip Earl Johnson.

He’s worked, steadily, including 30 weekends of performances across the country, at the only profession he ever considered.

“I’ve always known I was going to be an actor — since second grade,” he says about his years growing up in Libertyville. “Every chance I got to be in a play, I was.”

Those plays and his drive still pay off. “I haven’t had a non-performing job since I was 24,” says Johnson, now 48.

Currently he’s starring in “The Dead” at Chicago’s Court Theatre in Hyde Park, through Dec. 9, which he’ll follow in January in David Hare’s “Skylight,” also at Court.

In “The Dead,” Johnson plays Gabriel Conroy, a professor in early 20th century Dublin who’s recalling one of the annual musical parties hosted by his aging aunts every Twelfth Night (Epiphany). It’s a gathering of friends who play and sing and celebrate their friendship.

This is Court’s third production of the play, the earlier ones mounted in 2002 and 2003. “The Dead,” by Richard Nelson and Shaun Davey, which debuted in 2000 on Broadway, is based on James Joyce’s story of the same name.

Johnson’s got a long list of dramatic credentials, that includes work at Steppenwolf, Chicago Shakespeare, Goodman. He did the national tour of “Angels in America” and a variety of TV shows.

However, he notes, “I rarely do comedies. People don’t even know I’m funny.”

His work in “The Dead” won’t change that. But Johnson is funny. A bona fide clown, in fact. For the past 23 years, he’s also performed as MooNIE the Magnif’Cent, a juggler, ropewalker, clown and all-round “Foolish Mortal.”

Moving from clowning to dramatics, is not a matter of opposites, says Johnson. It’s all performance, and he’s a performer. As a clown, says Johnson, he tosses his energy directly out to the audience, they toss it back as a laugh, a sigh, a shift in a chair or opening a candy wrapper. Then he reacts to that, does something more, and so it goes.

In a play, that energy is first directed at the other actors, but still travels to the audience. And again, it comes back, shapes the show.

Yet despite all those years on all kinds of stages, Johnson’s role in “The Dead” presents some new challenges. “I’ve never been in a musical before,” he explains, and it’s a hefty role.

“I have to sing, dance a bit and I’m the narrator as well as the lead male in the show,” he explains. Added to that, “I have to deliver James Joyce’s language as if it’s images in the minds of readers. That prose is extremely lyrical, it has a deep sense of poetry, and the imagery is not necessarily natural, yet you have to communicate all of that.”

A lot of hard work, but, says Johnson, “I’m super excited about it.”

Plus there’s the cast and crew, some of the cream of Chicago theater. “A great cast to work with, a lot of musical talent,” says Johnson. “I’m honored to be on stage with these people.”

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