On Oct. 15, central Vermont’s theater world received a seismic shock. Jeff Tolbert, a beloved actor and filmmaker, died at the age of 58 as consequence of cardiac arrest, painlessly and peacefully while biking in the forest trails in Randolph.
The Tolberts — Jeff, his wife Florence Marguerite Tolbert (1967-2018) and sons Cobalt and Titien — moved to Randolph from Florence’s native France in 2000. They found home in Randolph, with Florence teaching French at Sharon Academy, and Jeff sharing his gifts as an integral part of the central Vermont theater community. His colleagues and friends have shared some memories:
Jeanne Beckwith, playwright
“I first got to really know Jeff well when I had the opportunity to direct him as Otto Frank in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Quarryworks in 2006. He was perfect for the part, an actor who wore both tragic and comic masks with wisdom and wit. His energy was contagious. He was and continued to be, for all the years I’ve known him, a generous actor and a force of nature on the stage.
“We had to be our best to keep up. I loved him when he was quiet and when he was rowdy. We all did. He was the best, and he was not ashamed to love us all back just like we were family, and family, his beloved Flo and his boys, was everything to him.
“Losing Flo devastated Jeff, but his boys gave him strength to get through it. His eyes would light up whenever he spoke about them. He was so proud. Jeff lived all his many lives to the fullest, and his leaving us leaves a great gap in Vermont’s theater world. We will all miss him so much.”
Bill Blachly, Unadilla Theatre
“Jeff hasn’t missed a summer at the Unadilla for nearly 10 years. He was a delight to direct. Despite his Equity status he was endlessly patient with community actors and directors. He brought insight and charm to every part he played and warmth and humor back stage. His passing is a major blow to us all and we’ll miss him.
Marjorie Ryerson, friend
“Yes, Jeff Tolbert was a gifted and compassionate actor. Yes, from the stage, he deeply drew us all in to whichever play he was in, usually as the lead. But additionally, Jeff was an indispensable friend, neighbor, father and husband. I feel very blessed to have known him as a friend for the many years that he and his wife Flo lived near me. And as much-beloved Flo recently struggled through and lost her battle with terminal cancer, Jeff was there beside her, providing constant love and support throughout. What a gift to the human species they both were.”
G. Richard Ames, actor
“Regardless of the content or caliber of a particular production in which he appeared, Jeff always turned in a fine-tuned performance which made it well worth the drive and the price of admission. If you were fortunate enough to join him onstage, you looked forward to the next opportunity to do so. I was blessed to have such a chance five times in an eight-year period, and to be a member of his audience many other times. But the best part of our collaborations was being able to call him my good friend.”
Kim Bent, Lost Nation Theater
“Losing Jeff so suddenly and unexpectedly to ‘natural causes’ in the midst of this damnable pandemic has left a gaping hole in the heart of Vermont’s performing arts community. Although Kathleen and I reached out to Jeff frequently asking him to join us for a multitude of shows at LNT, his extensive commitments and connections made it impossible for him to say, ‘Yes!’ except on two occasions. Looking back now, it seems like fate that those plays, ‘Stone’ and ‘Ransom,’ were two of the most community inspired and connected projects LNT has ever done. His heartbreakingly sweet tenor and his gentle, generous soul will be deeply missed by all knew him.”
Melissa Lourie, Middlebury Acting Company
“I only worked with Jeff once, directing him in ‘Macbeth.’ He played Macduff, and did a great job with a challenging role. I had been searching for a Macduff for a long time, and my options were narrowing. Jeff was recommended by a mutual colleague and I was happy to find him. The happiest surprise for me was that Jeff turned out to be expert with swords and fighting, which I had not known when I hired him. He was not a big man, and I did worry about whether he would be able to hold his own in the climactic battle scene where he goes head to head with Macbeth. As it turned out, Jeff was a fencer, and knew how to handle himself with weapons. He more than held his own!”
Ruth Ann Pattee, Valley Players
“I met Jeff last year, while directing ‘Oliver!’ for the Valley Players in Waitsfield. He rode in on his white stallion to save the day by agreeing to play Mr. Bumble after someone else dropped out. I liked him immediately. His wry humor and boundless talent were a joy to share. I could have listened to him sing the phone book, his voice was so clear and beautiful. His backstage love of Chinese food was legendary.
When COVID hit and the rest of the season was canceled, Jeff joined our Zoom play reading group. Working with him in any medium was always a good time. It seems trite to say he will be missed by so many, but he really, really will.”
Carl Brandon, friend
“A few summers ago, I went to see my closest friend Jeff perform in ‘Juno and the Paycock’ at the Unadilla Theatre. I would travel all over Vermont whenever Jeff was performing. It was a night with thunderstorms, one of which caused a power failure. In the other Unadilla theater (there are two adjacent) they had to terminate their play and refund the tickets. I happened to bring my new 2,000-lumen flashlight, and by shining in on the proscenium it illuminated the entire stage and Jeff and his fellow actors were able to complete the remaining hour of the play.”
Sarah McDougal, Valley Players
“Our theater community lost a vibrant force, our friend Jeff. I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe him to those of you who weren’t lucky enough to have known him. He was funny, charming, a little mischievous, a little rebellious. As so many have noted, he was incredibly talented. But the word that keeps coming to me is generous. He was a generous and exuberant performer. He was generous with his energy, with his support, with his passion for justice, with his love for his family.
Even though I spent a lot of time with Jeff at karaoke — engaging in small talk and listening to the band — I feel like I didn’t actually know him very well. I thought we had more time.”
Tim Tavcar, director
“In my years in central Vermont, I had the opportunity and great pleasure to meet and become a friend and colleague of Jeff. One of the many times we worked together was when he performed in one of my WordStage productions, bringing vibrant life to the role of the decadent and visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud in Christopher Hampton’s “Total Eclipse.” Jeff’s portrayal of Rimbaud was fearless as he moved seamlessly through the many facets of the moods and delusional fantasies of this mercurial genius. We all had to bring our ‘A-game’ to the proceedings and we did so through Jeff’s sharing of his encyclopedic knowledge of French culture, history and literature — not to mention the proper pronunciation of the French words scattered throughout the lines! To this day, ‘Total Eclipse’ remains one of my most favorite WordStage presentations over our 14-year performance history.
Thank you Jeff, for sharing so much and for giving so much of your energy and expertise to the central Vermont arts and theater communities. We are all grateful and certainly more the better for your talents and generosity.”
Telling was David Corriveau’s Jan. 25, 2018 Valley News story previewing Tolbert’s performance in Paul Lucas’ “Trans Scripts Part I: The Women,” as part of Chandler Center’s Vermont Pride Festival in Randolph. Tolbert was to deliver his monologue to an audience that included his wife, Florence, who learned on Monday night that she had only a matter of days left in her long battle with cancer.
“She definitely intends on going to see this one,” Tolbert told Corriveau that Tuesday afternoon. “It’s the last show she’s going to see me in. This play is all about having compassion and empathy for people who are ‘different.’ It’s too easy for people to lose sight of what is important in life. People live for a short amount of time. We’ve all got to get along somehow.
“There’s no way I can’t do this.”