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The Infinite Jest and Excellent Fancy of Neil Garvey

When word began to circulate through the theater community on Wednesday, February 22, that Neil Garvey had died, the reaction was a combination of grief and disbelief.

Neil gone? How could that even be possible? Steady, loyal, and reliable Neil had always been there.

An important theater community personality, many had sought his insight and wisdom, his friendship, and his support. Neil had appeared in dozens of plays at many theaters, but he was most closely associated with Shakespeare in Delaware Park, where he appeared in more than 25 productions.

The 56-year-old actor and attorney had undergone heart surgery just three weeks before his death. Friends noted that Garvey had greeted the procedure with optimism and enthusiasm. In recent years he had struggled visibly with his health, and this surgery, he enthused, was supposed to assuage a multitude of woes. Alas, it was a prelude to the end, and it seemed impossible.

“I first met Neil in 1977,” recalls Shakespeare in Delaware Park founder and artistic director Saul Elkin. “It was our second season. Neil was a law student at UB and came to an open audition. I was then hoping to cast more mature actors opposite our students, and I was immediately taken with his voice, his maturity, and his reading of Shakespeare. I cast him as Egeus.”

Casting the portly law student in the role of Egeus, the father of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was a witty choice. The character underscores the play’s theme of love vs. the law. Egeus insists that his daughter obey him in his choice of a husband for her, as the law demands, or face death as the legal consequence. It is that ultimatum that sends the lovers fleeing into the woods.

“Neil’s grasp of the language and his natural style as an actor grew over the years and the many roles he played in the park,” Elkin observes.

In time, Garvey would gain a reputation for (and take great pleasure in) playing a litany of Shakespearean clergymen, most recently taking the role of Cardinal Pandolf in a staged reading of The Life and Death of King John for the festival’s annual fundraiser in November—his final performance for Shakespeare in Delaware Park. Along the way, he also snuck in such men of the cloth as Cardinal Wolsey in A Man for All Seasons at the Kavinoky, Mr. Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest at the Irish Classical Theatre, and Father Mark in Tony ’n’ Tina’s Wedding at Shea’s.

Those who knew Garvey at Shakespeare in Delaware Park also recall that he guided the festival through some treacherous days of falling finances and a precarious future.

“In the 1990s,” recalls Elkin, “he came on board as CEO of the festival and steered us through a very difficult time.” When the university dropped support of the festival, Garvey helped Shakespeare in Delaware Park incorporate as an independent not-for-profit entity. “He became my close and loving friend, and legal advisor for me and for my family,” Elkin says.

During the 1990s, Garvey’s close friend, Nancy N. Doherty, served as executive director of Shakespeare in Delaware Park.

“Somewhere,” Doherty recalls, “I still have the cocktail napkin on which he penned my job description—‘Do this, that, and the other thing, and when you’re done with that, do everything else.’ Our last conversation was about orange Jell-O. Somehow those two things seem to encompass our 30-year relationship.”

Doherty recalls Garvey’s wit and deep loyalty.

“We shared an inordinate amount of joy and unfortunately a great deal of sorrow. His friendship was a gift of hope and strength and grace—of ‘infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,’” she says, evoking Hamlet’s graveside memories of poor Yorick.

While Garvey appeared most often on the Shakespeare stage, the role he played most often was probably Andrew Makepeace Ladd III, opposite his friend Mary Kate O’Connell as Melissa Gardner, in A. R. Gurney’s epistolary play, Love Letters. In the piece, the two read letters that chronicle a friendship of nearly 50 years.

“I find it impossible to comprehend that Neil is now living in memory,” O’Connell says. “We first worked together at Shakespeare in the Park. There was a singing cast, sort of the alter egos of the characters. I was in the singers’ cast, he was an actor—although he sang every chance he got! I regularly reminded him that he was supposed to act, not sing. The music was all glorious Harold Arlen. The final song was ‘Paper Moon,’ and each night Neil would exit grinning and singing it at the top of his lungs directly at me!

“That summer,” O’Connell continues, “if it rained during the day, Neil was charged with walking the stage to make sure it was safe for actors. One night he decided the show should be canceled, and he instructed the cast to adjourn to his place on Elmwood. Any friends who brought picnics to the show were invited, too, and we picnicked on the porch. Even a rained-out show became a fun adventure with Neil.”

Certainly, performances of Love Letters opposite Garvey resonate as a special memory for O’Connell.

“We performed the show many times over a period of 15 years or so,” she recalls. “Neil and I decided that we should find creative ways to keep the show fresh. Mine was to find new dimensions for our characters and their relationship. His was to leave funny notes in my script and deliver the most emotional passage in the show as Walter Cronkite—during rehearsals only, of course. By that point in the play, my character is supposed to be dead, but Neil got me giggling uncontrollably. I think his ‘fresh’ was much more fun than mine. I can’t imagine ever doing the play with anyone else. Neil was a caring and giving partner on stage, and in life.”

Garvey’s private onstage moments of bonding are legend.

“It still makes me smile,” says actor Connie Caldwell, “when I think of Neil saying, under his breath and for my benefit: ‘So long, suckers!’ as we exited the stage after doing a reading of Bread & Onions. I laughed so uncontrollably that he couldn’t help but laugh back just as hard. Tears were running down our faces. That was the bonding moment with many more laughs and memorable times to follow. I admired and enjoyed Neil’s great wit so much. Just as he once said I was one of his ‘favorite broads,’ he was one of my favorite people. His passing hurts.”

Garvey was a man with many friends who recall his loyalty and his sincere compassion for others.

“I didn’t just lose a dear friend this week,” says Derek Campbell, the Irish-born director who directed Garvey in The Importance of Being Earnest. “A part of my adopted city died with him. For me Neil was an inescapable, iconic part of Buffalo’s cultural landscape. He held a roving portfolio—actor, administrator, board member, official and unofficial legal advisor to scores of us, and most recently [he was] a wise and perceptive theatre critic for Buffalo Rising. He was a gentle soul and the most erudite of men with an abiding passion for the classics and language. It’s all we have but mere words cannot express the depth of this loss.”

For some, the loss comes with overwhelming nostalgia for good times shared.

From New York City, actor John Daggett and his wife, playwright Catherine Filloux, write, “When Neil walked onto the hill in Delaware Park, his overstuffed bag slung across his great shoulder and bright plastic cooler gripped in his hands, his presence confirmed that the earth was placed firmly under your feet; that the sunlight would soon fade and the show would begin; that the morning would bring infinite possibilities. His passion made you a better actor. His laughter made you a better person.”

Others recall Garvey’s profound sense of community.

“I thoroughly enjoyed and admired Neil’s work on stage before having the privilege of meeting him in the early ’90s in my capacity with the City of Buffalo Arts Commission,” says David Granville. “Neil’s fervent advocacy for Shakespeare in Delaware Park was matched by his passionate support for the region’s entire cultural community. Neil’s view that public support for the arts is essential for a healthy and vibrant city helped ensure funding, even when cuts threatened our cultural life. Neil was very proud of his role with the Fendrick Fund that awarded new endeavors in local theater and carried on the legacy of his fellow Shakespearean actor, David Fendrick.”

A trial attorney, Garvey was admitted to the bar in New York and Florida in 1984, and practiced general law, specializing in personal injury. His efforts to meld the elements of his life through theater include his direction of a re-enactment of the trial of Leon Czolgosz, assassin of President William McKinley, for the Erie County Bar Association, as part of the 2001 Pan-American Centenary Celebration. The recreation was honored with the prestigious Bar Association “Liberty Bell Award” in 2002.

Granville notes that Garvey’s love of humanity began with a love of family.

“Meeting Neil’s family at the law office or on the Roycroft campus was like stepping into a cozy room,” says Granville. “Friendship with Neil meant a warm welcome from his family, and Neil shared this all-embracing warmth with thousands upon thousands every holiday season when he appeared as Santa Claus with our philharmonic at Kleinhans Music Hall, at sing-alongs in the Elmwood village, or wherever a spark of joy could be had by the finest jolly, old elf we will ever see again.”

One didn’t need to be one of Neil’s closest friends to feel a close bond with him.

“I have a lot of memories of Neil and miss him terribly,” says Joseph Demerly, managing director of the Kavinoky Theatre, where Garvey gave his Artie award winning performance as Sir Wilfred Robarts in Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, among other roles. “From our late night Facebook chats to bumping into him on Pearl Street and hugging him like a five-year-old hugs his favorite uncle, he always brought me comfort in a way that few others can. Many actors can regale you with stories of Neil’s green room lottery pools, the treats he would bring on a Sunday morning, his wink-wink stories, and his rapier wit. He used to call me Giuseppe. Yes. I miss him.”

Vincent O’Neill, co-founder and artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, paints a vivid and multi-faceted picture of Garvey, beginning with the humor and benevolence at the core of Garvey’s personality.

“The first images that come to mind” says O’Neill, “are: the ready wit, dry and often sardonic, but always generous and never vindictive; the pleasantly ambling gait; the lively intelligence and mastery of language; that mischievous smile; the wonderfully sonorous and mellow basso profundo voice; the gloriously irreverent sense of humor; but mostly the deep and abiding love of theater, of theater people, and of our profession with all its flaws and tawdry magic. He was both literally and metaphorically a giant among men. He was loved by all because of his extraordinary generosity of spirit. To say he will be sorely missed is an understatement that scarcely even touches the surface of the thing.”

Lighting designer Brian Cavanagh lived in the same house as Garvey and feels the loss of him profoundly. He notes that part of the magic of knowing Neil Garvey, was the man’s unique ability to help you know the best of yourself.

“When I came back to Buffalo,” says Cavanagh, “Neil gave me a card that read, ‘Did you ever think that this is where you were meant to be?’ He was wise. He was caring. He was selfless, and humorous, and honest, endearing, dependable, witty, brilliant, vibrant, generous, and creative. He was sincere and he was my dear friend. I’ll miss our evening discussions on the porch of the home where I was meant to be.”

Neil’s 57th birthday would have been March 15. Many in the theater community evoked favorite lines of Shakespeare to eulogize him. With sincere simplicity, Saul Elkin suggested the most famous eulogy from all of Shakespeare.

“Good night, sweet prince…”

The life of Neil Garvey was celebrated with a funeral mass on Saturday, March 3, at Immaculate Conception Church in East Aurora. The family requests that memorial contributions be made to Shakespeare in Delaware Park, P.O. Box 716, Buffalo, NY 14205.