‘A real and permanent love’ helped transform a beloved musical-comedy queen into a bona fide dramatic actor in Fort Collins
Fort Collins actor Deb Note-Farwell drew gasps during a production of On Golden Pond last November when she made the story of a fictional stage couple her very own.
In the story, the pair made famous on film by Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda have come to realize that while the years have been good to them, there will not be another summer on Golden Pond.
Late in PopUp Theatre’s intimate 2017 staging, Note-Farwell quietly pulled off her wig and revealed to the audience her own naked head, made bald from chemotherapy. Her scene partner was her husband of 24 years, Jonathan Farwell. Her character did not have cancer. Note-Farwell emphatically did.
The intermingling of fact and fiction caught audiences off-guard. “I think it was a very courageous moment that spoke both to their marriage and their journey together through cancer,” said Wendy Ishii, co-founder of the Bas Bleu Theatre in Fort Collins.
Note-Farwell, a widely adored and insistently optimistic actor and director, died Saturday (Aug. 11), of ovarian cancer. She was 64. Farwell said he knew his wife was ready to go when in recent days he noticed the joyful smile she wore while sleeping. “I can tell you from having lived with her so long that she never slept with a smile on her face before,” he said with a smile of his own.
Note-Farwell, her husband further explained, “has not always entirely been of this world.” When her diagnosis changed to terminal seven weeks ago, Note-Farwell accepted the news gracefully. “I just want to roll on out, like a drop of water rejoining the ocean,” she said. “I want to go out gracefully, not desperately.”
That said, Farwell added: “She is leaving me against her will.”
The Farwells moved to Fort Collins in 2005, and they have made an indelible mark on the Northern Colorado theatre landscape ever since. They have directed or performed for every theatre company in Fort Collins, and they have regularly lent their talents to student workshops and performances at Colorado State University. “They were everywhere, and they had boundless energy,” Ishii said.
The pair often acted together in titles ranging from I’m Not Rappaport to King Lear. Note-Farwell could believably play Farwell’s wife, daughter or even his Shakespearean fool, given their 21-year age difference. Note-Farwell in turn directed her husband in one of his great stage accomplishments: Playing a man with advancing Alzheimer’s disease fighting to determine his own destiny in Bas Bleu’s The Outgoing Tide. Farwell delivered a fully fleshed and close-to-the-bone portrayal of a man whose encroaching dementia steels his determination to control how his life ends. Farwell’s performance earned him his second Colorado Theatre Guild Henry Award as Outstanding Actor — after turning 80. “I think that was the zenith of their work together here in Fort Collins,” Ishii said.
Added Farwell: “We nourished each other in our professional work, and that was always a source of joy and contentment for both of us.”
Note-Farwell ’s own zenith was arguably PopUp Theatre’s 2016 staging of Master Class, directed by Christopher Huelshorst. Playing opera diva Maria Callas, Northern Colorado theatre critic Tom Jones wrote: “The actress has completely moved her own persona out of the way in the performance of a lifetime.”
What astounded Farwell, he said, “was the intimacy and totality with which she became Maria Callas. She plumbed the depths of that character. Her performance became a master class for real.” And, he suggested, the performance completed Note-Farwell’s transformation from the affable musical-comedy queen he first met into a bona fide dramatic actor.
Life begins in the Shadowlands
Note-Farwell was born on Oct. 29, 1953, in Fresno, Calif. She graduated from Stanford with a degree in political science before being beckoned to Hollywood to pursue a life in music with her band, called Chameleon. She eventually settled into a job as an advertising copywriter in Modesto, Calif., while enjoying a second life acting with the Columbia Actors Rep 90 miles away in Sonora. She was cast as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady and soon became known as the go-to actor for light, musical-comedy roles.
It was the William Nicholson play Shadowlands that first brought the couple together in 1994 — and it is in the shadow of that same play that Note-Farwell now has been taken away from him.
Shadowlands is the story of Narnia author C.S. Lewis and his much younger wife, Jewish-American poet Joy Gresham. It is a bittersweet, May-December romance that ends with the younger woman’s death from cancer. Farwell’s first wife died of breast cancer in 1990 after 35 years of marriage.
When British director Peter Craze first offered Farwell and Note-Farwell their roles in 1994, the widower wanted nothing to do with it. Or, more specifically — with her. Sight unseen, he thought she was an insubstantial so-and-so. She thought he was “a big-time Broadway blah-blah-blah.”
“She tends to gloss over my credits,” Farwell deadpanned in a 2005 interview. But his credits were considerable. Farwell was a veteran of four Broadway shows, had spent 11 years at top regional theaters, headlined a national tour as Salieri in Amadeus and carried a long list of TV credits. If Farwell were to play literature’s great Christian apologist in Shadowlands, he said, nothing less than a serious dramatic actress opposite him would suffice. He nearly turned down the role rather than play it opposite his future wife.
But after doing his homework, Farwell decided to take a plunge that would lead to “the plunge.” “I had references,” he said with a laugh. “If I had a little bit more courage of my misguided convictions, we never would have met.”
Instead, they finally did — on the first day of rehearsal. And when Farwell walked into the room, Note-Farwell practically fainted.
“I can corroborate that,” said Note-Farwell, until then a confirmed bachelorette. “I remember seeing him and thinking: ‘Oh, he’s … just … lovely.’ Only I said it right out loud. I mean, my jaw must have just dropped.”
It turns out that a lot of people from the theater company were in cahoots to bring the couple together — and not just on stage. “It was more like an assignation,” Farwell concluded.
As visiting artists, the pair were housed in adjoining rooms in the home of a local patron who always kept the heat down to save on electric bills. So after every night of eight-hour rehearsals, the two would go back to the assigned house, light a fire and snuggle under blankets while sipping hot toddies. Together they would practice their lines while sharing a footstool. Their romantic fates were sealed. “It was like we had known each other forever,” Note-Farwell said.
Looking back now, Farwell says, “we really were instantly compatible.” And it was the play itself that convinced him.
“The spine of Shadowlands is that Lewis starts out as a man of intellectual understanding without the personal experience of love, but with strong theological convictions about its meaning and function,” Farwell said. “Through his relationship with Joy, he is exposed to the visceral reality of it for the first time, and it not only wakes him up to life, but shakes his faith.”
A year later, one of Farwell’s two daughters called Note and said, “We have to meet you because whatever you have done to this man, we are totally in favor of it.” The couple were married on the set of their second Shadowlands engagement.
For a decade, the Farwells were the Lunt and Fontanne of the theatre community in Ashland, Ore. And when they moved to Colorado at Ishii’s urging in 2005, they became the Hepburn and Tracy of Fort Collins. “They took Fort Collins by storm and have developed a real following,” said Ishii. They have shared their talents in myriad ways. People love them individually and as a couple.”
Ishii had worked with Jonathan Farwell on TV’s All My Children back in 1984 and asked them to come to Fort Collins. The couple first visited during Bas Bleu’s landmark co-production of Angels in America with the neighboring OpenStage Theatre Company, and they were hooked on all of it — the theatre community, the city and the people in it.
“The thing about Fort Collins is that the whole community is on the cultural ascent,” Note-Farwell said at the time. “You can feel it, and Colorado State University just imbues the whole city with a positive energy. I tell you, it’s been a totally perfect decision.”
Colorado audiences were introduced to the Farwells with their third Shadowlands go-round, this time for Bas Bleu. During that run, they marked their 10th wedding anniversary, appropriately enough, by renewing their vows on the set.
A cancer diagnosis faced with hope
Note-Farwell was diagnosed with cancer on Jan. 1, 2017, as she was planning a surprise 85th birthday for her husband. The initial prognosis was hopeful, and Farwell says she maintained a positive attitude throughout. “She just sat me down and said, ‘No fears; no regrets; one day at a time,’ ” Farwell said. Things went unalterably south recently when Note-Farwell had emergency colon surgery.
Farwell calls what he and his wife have shared “a real and permanent love.”
“We found we had gifts to give each other,” he said. “She taught me how to love unconditionally. When I married her, I decided to love her as infinitely as I could.”
In addition to her husband, Note-Farwell is survived by her stepdaughters. Elisabeth Farwell-Moreland, Producing Director at Seattle Repertory Theatre; and Alison Garrigan, founder and Executive Artistic Director of the Talespinner Children’s Theatre in Cleveland. Garrigan calls Note-Farwell “a glorious, incandescent stepmom who has maintained a beatific grace throughout this entire, difficult time. She was always concerned more with her loved ones and her caregivers than for her own well-being.”
The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be sent in Note-Farwell’s name to the Talespinner Children’s Theatre in Cleveland. A memorial service is planned for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 19, at The Lincoln Center in Fort Collins, 417 W. Magnolia St. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Deb Note-Farwell: Colorado acting highlights
- Ethel Thayer in PopUp Theatre’s On Golden Pond* (2017)
- Maria Callas in PopUp Theatre’s Master Class (2016)
- Sister Clarissa in Bas Bleu’s Over the Tavern (2013)
- Abuela Claudia in Midtown Arts Center’s In the Heights (2012)
- Fool in OpenStage’s King Lear* (2011)
- Lilla in Bas Bleu’s The Moving of Lilla Barton* (2010)
- Nemasani in OpenStage’s Anon(ymous) (2009)
- Clara, Bas Bleu’s I’m Not Rappaport* (2009)
- Nancy Gordon in Openstage etc.’s Third (2008)
- Eileen in OpenStage’s The Cripple of Inishmaan (2008)
- Sylvia (the dog) in Bas Bleu’s Sylvia* (2007)
- Joy Gresham in Bas Bleu’s Shadowlands* (2005)
*Jonathan Farwell and Deb Note-Farwell appeared together