Sometimes, old service dogs get to serve again.
Take, Louis, for example.
For 10 years of his long life, the black Labrador retriever was the constant companion and helper for a wheelchair-bound woman.
But these days, Louis, at the ripe old dog age of 14, is in show biz.
The Lab is the only non-equity actor in the ongoing run of the John Steinbeck play Of Mice and Men staged by Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach.
“He has no idea what he’s doing, but he loves it because he considers it work,” said James Danford, who along with his husband, had raised Louis as a puppy, and then got the dog back when Louis retired after a decade of work for New Horizons Service Dogs.
The dark and engaging Steinbeck story of itinerant laborers during the Great Depression calls for a live dog on stage for two long and dramatically wrenching scenes.
“We did try to go out to the community and have a dog audition,” said Sue Ellen Beryl, the managing director at Palm Beach Dramaworks. “But we weren’t getting dogs that were the right size or the right age.”
Lucky for the theater, the perfect dog was within sniffing distance. Danford, a stage manager at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, had been a stage manager at Palm Beach Dramaworks, and he volunteered Louis for the role.
A car from the theater picks up Louis at his West Palm Beach home before every performance, and drops the dog back home after his last scene at the end of Act 1.
“He goes nuts when they show up to pick him up,” Danford said.
Dramaworks stage manager Suzanne Jones looks after Louis backstage.
“We have a bed and water set up for him on one side,” Jones said. “He’s a dog that wants to do what you want him to do. If you tell him to lay down, he stays put.”
Louis gets walked “profusely” before each show, Jones said, which has made him accident-free for all 31 performances so far. And being that he’s nearly deaf, he isn’t phased by the noise of the audience beyond the bright lights.
“He’s just a very gentle dog,” Jones said. “He’s never even barked.”
But that’s not to say that Louis still isn’t finding ways to fine-tune his performance. Sometimes, he does some on-stage sniffing. But most of the time, he does what’s required, which in this case is to stick next to actor Dennis Creaghan, while portraying a dog that’s about to be euthanized for being too old, smelly and useless.
The death scene for Louis is an emotional tug for audience members, but it’s Louis’ happiest moment of the evening.
“He knows that when he’s through with that last scene, he’s going backstage to get a dog biscuit,” Jones said.
So Louis’ tail is wagging as he exits the stage. And while the audience is reacting to the off-stage gunshot, Louis is experiencing the doggie bliss of a backstage biscuit after another fulfilling night of work.
The biscuit is his only compensation for his labor.
“He does it for the love of the theater,” Jones said.
By the time the rest of the cast is bowing for curtain calls at the end of the show, Louis is back home. No ovations for Louis, and no mention in the playbill.
There’s no understudy (underdog?) for Louis, either. If he can’t perform, there’s a script rewrite that allows the human actors to do the scene without a dog on stage.
But that hasn’t happened so far. And Danford can’t imagine that Louis would ever get tired of his unexpected new life as stage actor.
“He will not miss a show,” Danford said.
The only question is how badly Louis will miss his new-found showbiz life after November 17th, when this worthy production’s two-month run comes to an end?