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'Crusty guy' back in theater after 30 years on stages

Michael Johnson (left) of Crosby, Dan Rohr of Brainerd, Julie Friday of Crosslake (on floor) and Ann Collman of Brainerd rehearse a scene in “Mom’s Gift.” The family comedy plays at 8 p.m. July 10-12 and 15-17 in the high school theater at Pequot Lakes.

PEQUOT LAKES — Michael Johnson of Crosby, a retired doctor, returns to his community theater roots in a fatherly role in the heartwarming family comedy titled "Mom's Gift" on stage in Pequot Lakes.

"Mom's Gift" opens today and runs through Saturday and again from July 15-17. All shows are at 8 p.m.

Johnson's return, in a fatherly role for "Mom's Gift," marks three decades since his 1984 debut in the inaugural year for Pequot Lakes Community Theater (PLCT). He last performed on stage in Brainerd in 2006, where he was in several productions at Central Lakes College (CLC.)

"I took the part because the more I dug into the story the closer I felt to the character," said Johnson, who has performed in dozens of plays in the past 30 years. He is the father of two daughters in real life as well as the fictional one. His early years as a doctor required on-call periods away from his young family.

"Mom's Gift" is a comedy by Phil Olson that reminds us forgiveness may be the simplest path to love.

"As the father in 'Mom's Gift' it is clear that I wasn't around much when the girls were little," said the former physician who had moved to Little Falls after starting his medical career in Pequot Lakes.

He has played a family patriarch in several shows, from Teyve in "Fiddler on the Roof" to Pappy Yokum in "Li'l Abner" to Otto Frank in "Yours, Anne."

"Mom's Gift" seems like a fit for Johnson in other ways. He'd not been on stage in eight years.

"It is good to reconnect with friends, be part of a strong cast in a great story, and do theater again," Johnson said. He considered the part after director Nancy Waller insisted he read the script.

His last role was as Henry Drummond in "Inherit the Wind" in 2006.

After performing in three Pequot Lakes shows in 1984 and 1985, Johnson moved his medical practice. He joined theater groups in Little Falls and Brainerd. There were a number of "crusty old guys" among the roles, he said. In St. Cloud he was paid by New Tradition Theatre Company to perform in "Ten November." He also had parts in a professional dinner theater troupe based in Brainerd.

"Ten November" tells the story of the deadly November 1975 loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald ore ship in stormy Lake Superior.

"I was in medical school at Duluth when it went down, so it affected me," Johnson said. Two decades later he successfully landed a role that put him on stage with members of the Professional Actors Guild. Other memorable plays include the large-cast productions. "Bits of Broadway" in 1984 launched community theater in Pequot Lakes under director Judy Larsen, music director/wife Sandy Johnson and choreographer Joelle Burns. Johnson's young daughters, Shara and Heather, joined dozens of local actors in that cultural milestone.

Other classics with lots of performers and a family feel among cast members were

"Cabaret," "Evita," Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Peter Pan." Johnson said he enjoyed being part of a large cast. From comedic roles to serious themes such as evolution and death, the veteran actor has validated every character.

For "Bedroom Farce" in 1999, Johnson drew praise for adding skills such as Standard British and Brooklynese dialects to his repertoire.

A commitment to amateur drama often means work beyond the spotlight. Behind the scenes, Johnson has helped design and build community theater sets.

All actors and production teams devote hours of commuting and rehearsal to give audiences a slice of life and make memories. Besides Johnson from Crosby, the "Mom's

Gift" cast includes Sharon Hartley of Baxter, Mary Nelson of Cushing, Ann Collman and

Dan Rohr of Brainerd and Julie Friday of Crosslake.

PLCT celebrates its 30th year with the Minnesota premiere of "Mom's Gift." The theater company has previously staged Olson's "Crappie Talk," "Don't Hug Me" and "Don't Hug Me County Fair."

Tickets are available by calling Pequot Lakes Community Education at 218-568-9200. Information is available at, the website for Greater Lakes Area Performing Arts.