Martha Henry: An appreciation

by Lynn on November 4, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Martha Henry

I’ve known Martha Henry for decades, first as a theatre-smitten theatre student standing in the theatre parking lot giving her Tootsie Pops, the talisman of thanks for making the theatre so special for me, then as a friend and my mentor.

Acting.

Martha Henry never rushed, hurried or raised her voice. She didn’t have to. She commanded attention by being still and quiet. Her voice might sound like a low growl to suggest anger, but never louder than that. She knew the power of making the audience listen to her rather than raising her voice to make them hear her. She was a masterful teacher at that and so much more.

Martha Henry was born in Detroit, Michigan. Early in her career Martha was part of illustrious theatre companies in the U.S: the Arena Stage Company in Washington, D.C. with Jane Alexander and part of the Lincoln Center Theater Company with Blythe Danner. But it was Canada that won Martha’s heart and loyalty. She fell in love with the Stratford Festival when she visited it when she was a stage-struck kid. She said that any country that had a place like Stratford was where she wanted to live.

I was so fortunate to see Martha Henry act and later direct, mostly at the Stratford Festival, but also across the country. I first saw Martha at Stratford in Measure for Measure (1975). She played Isabella. She was thrilling. Isabella was a novice nun. She was asked to compromise her beliefs and her chastity to Angelo a powerful man in charge of governing at the time, in exchange for her brother’s life.  Angelo was smitten with her. She was saved by The Duke but then he, too, wanted her, as his wife. Her life as a novice was over.

The last scene was of Isabella wearing a nun’s head covering and simple glasses, looking stricken over her shoulder to the audience, slowly taking of her glasses and sliding off the head-covering. Devastating. What a perfect beginning to seeing the brilliance of Martha Henry on stage. The director was Robin Phillips.  

That stunning performance was followed in 1977 by her determined, strong performance as Lady Anne in Richard III with Brian Bedford playing Richard III. Again, Robin Phillips directed. There was a scene when the Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) propositioned Lady Anne as she followed her husband’s casket for burial. Martha Henry as Lady Anne furiously spat a gob in his face. He smirked and wiped it off with his hand, then licked his hand. The production was full of such power.

Martha Henry and Robin Phillips often worked together and the results were stellar. Phillips’ directed the film of The Wars (1983) by Timothy Findlay. It was a huge achievement in Canadian film starring William Hutt, Martha Henry, Brent Carver and Jackie Burroughs, among other fine actors. Martha Henry played Mrs. Ross, the troubled mother of Robert Ross played by Brent Carver. The scene people always talk about is the one when an equally troubled Robert Ross is in the bath tub, taking a bath. Mrs. Ross is sitting behind him, on the closed toilet seat, quietly smoking. His back is to her. The scene is full of pain, angst, despair and is absolutely heart-breaking—quietly done. And again, devastating.

As much as Martha worked with other directors: often with Antoni Cimolino (her towering Prospero in The Tempest, a forceful Volumnia in Coriolanus and a wickedly impish Lady Bountiful—especially with a large zucchini–in The Beaux’ Stratagem) at Stratford; with Ann Hodges  directing her as a fierce Violet in August: Osage County (2012) at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg; Stewart Arnott directed her in Marjorie Prime (2020) at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto, to name only a few, Martha had a special relationship with director Diana Leblanc.

They had been friends since they both were both acting students at the National Theatre School in Montreal. Diana Leblanc directed Martha Henry in some of the best work I’ve seen anywhere:

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Stratford, 1994 and 1995) considered by many to be the definitive production of this play. Martha played Mary Tyrone and was astonishing as was William Hutt as James Tyrone. Mary’s lilting voice of enquiry and yet concern of “What are you looking at? Is my hair coming down?” Mary’s voice was also fiercely quiet in how she could manipulate and shoot off a dart of a line of her own. Mary rocked in a rocking chair, sliding her hands back and forth along the arm rests and how the fingers were deliberately entwined to look gnarled like they were crippled with arthritis. The memory leaves me breathless.

Three Tall Women (1996) at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton in which Martha played “A” for the first time, a warm-up for Stratford, 25 years later. “B” was Fiona Reid and “C” was Jennifer Wigmore.

Wit also at the Citadel playing Vivian Bearing, a university professor fighting cancer.  

Rose (2005) at the Saidye Bronfman Theatre (now the Segal Center) in Montreal. Playing Rose,   a one-woman play of a woman sitting shiva for her grandchild and to a larger extent, the 20th century.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1996) at Stratford. Diana Leblanc directed this steamy, sensuous production of lost chances starred Martha Henry, Geordie Johnson and Bernice—Bernice was the ‘pet-name’ given to the deep-wine-red satin bed covering under which a lot of physical action took place. Bernice was a sensual presence in this production of sex and desire. The chemistry between Martha Henry and Geordie Johnson was undeniable.  

Death of a Salesman (1997) at Stratford. Al Waxman played Willy Loman, Martha Henry played Linda Loman. In the first scene, when Willy came home after a disastrous road trip,  Linda followed him around the set, holding on to the back of his coat like a lost child needing to be lead. It was a heartbreaking performance of a dutiful wife who was not appreciated.

The Cherry Orchard (1998) Stratford. Martha Henry played Lyubov the deluded owner of the Cherry Orchard, who was both frustrating in her not wanting to face reality and endearing because she was so needy in wanting to be liked.

The Glass Menagerie at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Playing Amanda Wingfield, resilient, and determined who loved her children by willing them to try and do better.  

And Three Tall Women at Stratford, 2021. Martha played “A”, Lucy Peacock played “B” and Mamie Zwettler played “C”. More on that later.

Martha Henry illuminated every character she played and every play she directed. Lots has been written to try and capture her artistry. Suffice it to say, there is Martha Henry and then there is everybody else. 

Directing.

Martha wanted to direct and said that she would start small, by directing a one person play. It was Brief Lives (1980. Stratford) by Patrick Garland about John Aubrey a 17th century chronicler and gossip of the times. It starred Douglas Rain. The set was a rat-pack’s delight, a conglomeration of stuff that would defeat even Marie Kondo. The staging, direction and acting were a terrific. The same rigor that Martha Henry applied to finding the clues to her characters in her acting she applied to finding the clues of the play in her directing.

The Grace of Mary Traverse (1987)at Toronto Free Theatre, in which Martha Henry used the huge space of Astrid Janson’s set to great effect.

Martha Henry went from directing strength to directing strength, heading the Grand Theatre in London, Ont. as Artistic Director from 1988-95. Her casting was always inspired. Martha was incorporating ‘colour-rich, colour-conscious casting before it was de rigueur. She directed David Mamet’s incendiary play Oleanna(1995) about a pompous, but clueless, teacher named John and his dealings with a hapless, but easily manipulated, student named Carol. John was played by Rod Beattie. Carol was played by a young Korean-Canadian actress making her professional debut named Sandra Oh. The casting added another layer of complexity to the play. The results were electrifying.

Blood Relations (1989),Grand Theatre, London, Ont. A fantastic set by Astrid Janson set the stage for the bloody acts of Lizzie Borden—a bloody psychological thriller. Diana Leblanc played Lizzie, Frances Hyland played her actress friend. Martha Henry’s direction illuminated the depths of the play.

Fire (1990-91) Grand Theatre. Martha Henry directed Michael McManus as a character loosely based on hard-rocker, Jerry Lee Lewis, in a wild, daring production.

All My Sons (2016, Stratford).  Martha Henry directed an exquisite production. It was as delicate as a spider web and as fraught with danger. The revelations of how deep the betrayals and deceit go gripped you more and more tightly.

Henry VIII (2019), Stratford. (The last production Martha directed). She created a court of political intrigue and secrecy with Jonathan Goad as Henry VIII. Characters have cloistered conversations with others sharing their mendacious plans; others stand on the ‘balcony’ above the stage and observe private conversations and imagine what is being said; rumour abounds.

Mentorship.

Martha shared her wealth of experience, first as the Director of The Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Training, which she headed for several years and then as the Director of The Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction. Her mentorship was revered by the next generation of actors and directors. They saved her missives, post-it notes with advice, e-mails full of suggestions and letters full of encouragement.

And I revered her mentorship too. When I was starting my Slotkin Letter of my reviews of theatre I’d seen locally, nationally and internationally, Martha Henry was on the list to receive it, in multi-pages of hard copy. She said it was an invaluable resource. She was talking about the letter in glowing terms to Pat Quigley, then the Director of Education at the Stratford Festival. Pat said she wanted to be on the list. Martha said that was not possible as the list of who received it was so long (about 40 people at the time) “…that Lynn said no one new can come on the list until someone on the list dies.” Pat Quigley then said, “I’ll pay.” What a concept. So Pat Quigley became a paying subscriber. More subscribers followed. When I went digital with the letter I did not charge. But more often than not the morning the letter was on my website I’d receive wise, thoughtful words from Martha Henry who suggested a comma here or correction of a spelling/and or grammar there. Martha often said that ‘editing was my life.” I believed her and was grateful. 

Christmas and Marilyn Monroe

Martha, Diana Leblanc and I have been celebrating Christmas together for about 20 years. For a few years choreographer/director Valerie Moore joined us but for the last several years it was Martha, Diana and me. We alternated who would host and cook.

Martha loved Marilyn Monroe, I did too. I always gave Martha a Marilyn Monroe calendar. She so looked forward to that. She gave me books and a purse with Marilyn Monroe on it. For Martha there were books on the sayings of Marilyn Monroe, a book of photos over the years and other memorabilia. She opened every present carefully and received them with glee.

Martha said that when she was a kid her idea of the perfect time was reading a book while eating a peanut butter and jam sandwich with a glass of milk. And popcorn was involved too. So every Christmas, besides the regular presents, I gave Martha a shoe box inside which was: a raffia box into which would fit a small carton of milk; another raffia box the precise size to hold a wrapped peanut butter and jam sandwich; a package of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn, and a book. If she came in from Stratford she reported back when she got home that she ate the sandwich and drank the milk and they were delicious. Always the perfect message. Then when we saw each other the next time, she gave me the empty raffia boxes to be used the following Christmas.

Kindness.

Martha Henry was wonderfully kind and thoughtful. It was intermission of an opening at Stratford years ago. Martha never went out to schmooze. She sat quietly in her seat. Also sitting quietly in her seat down front was a beloved long-time supporter of the Stratford Festival. This woman always went out for intermission but not this time. It was a hard time for her family. The woman and her husband had just lost an adult son to illness. Martha walked down the aisle to the row where the woman was sitting, quietly slipped into the seat beside her and put her arm around her shoulders, I imagine offering words of comfort and condolences. The woman melted into Martha. It was achingly personal and private. I felt like I was intruding seeing this from across the theatre from my seat. But that offer of comfort was pure Martha.

We often went to dinner in Toronto, Stratford or out of town if she was acting out of town. If I invited her for food between/after a show there was always a ‘conflict’ for the bill. Martha always paid the bill. She never accepted a contribution to the bill. She flicked the money away as if it was somebody else’s used Kleenex. And she did it with flair.

The last time we went to dinner was in Stratford, at Foster’s. We (Martha, Diana Leblanc and I) were at Martha’s table—the round one in the window. A waitress (Martha knew her name, I didn’t) quickly brought Martha a glass of her favourite chardonnay with ice. They knew what she liked and how she liked it and gave it to her without asking.

I was determined to pay the bill. After we got settled, on the pretext of going to the bathroom, I quietly went to the waitress at the entrance to the restaurant saying that when it came time for the bill I wanted her to give it to me. She blanched visibly. I have learned about subtext from watching Martha Henry act all these years, I knew what that blanching meant. The waitress said, “She won’t like that (meaning Martha).” I said, “I know. I don’t care. Occasionally people should be able to take Martha Henry to dinner. I know that Martha will make a fuss, but I want the bill.” The waitress said she would do it but she was going to leave the table quickly after that.

When the time came the waitress gave me the bill and quickly left and I just as quickly and quietly got out my wallet.

Martha: “What are you doing?” Martha asked quietly but with that look of horror as if a crime had taken place.

Me: “I’m paying the bill,” I said.

Martha: “No, you’re not,” (“not” was stretched to three syllables)” Martha said it in that musical, elegant voice, with a hint of edge. A look of surprise/disbelief.

Me: “Martha Henry, I am entitled to take you to dinner once every two years and pay the bill (the previous time was two years before. The time before that was never). You always, always take me to dinner and pay and it’s my turn. I’ve got the money and I want to take you to dinner. I think that’s a reasonable request.”  (My heart was thumping).

(Pause).

Martha: “Ok. (pause) (I exhaled in relief). But I’m going to tell the waitress that I am never coming here again.”

And we burst out laughing.

A Lasting Memory.

Of course, the production that will stay with me always, is Martha Henry in her last production, and particularly her last performance (Oct. 9, 2021) in Three Tall Women at the Stratford Festival. Diana Leblanc’s production was beautifully nuanced, subtle and riveting. The production was unforgiving yet graceful, hard yet funny and heartbreaking. And it showed Martha Henry determined and at the top of her theatrical powers; the fluttering hands that looked like ribbons floating on a breeze; the sultry voice making every syllable count; it was Martha Henry who had a deep understanding of her character and illuminated the pure command she had over her audience to make them feel uncomfortable, unsettled, but beguiled.

It was about a woman at the end of her life although I was sure this was not the end of the woman playing her, even though I knew Martha was ill. Not THAT Martha. But there is that line at the end of the play, “There’s a difference between knowing you’re going to die and knowing you’re going to die.” And she knew.

Martha started the run of the play in August using a walker. She finished the run using a wheelchair. Director Diana Leblanc kept re-staging the production to accommodate these ambulatory changes. Martha had been in failing health for two years and was stoical about it. It was reasonable to believe this was her last show. But, but, but, Martha Henry was so determined that it’s also reasonable that she could find the strength to do another production, next year, in Richard III as had been scheduled before COVID cancelled everything.

Her final bow Oct. 9 was electrifying. I’ve never seen such joy and defiance that she got through it. The standing ovation was instantly spontaneous and totally earned. Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino was there to give her a huge bouquet of yellow roses. He knelt on one knee and handed her the bouquet. It was so touching. Then Martha turned the wheelchair, waived and went off. It reminded me of William Hutt, also a great actor who would wave as he exited, indicating he was not coming back for more bows because he was tired. With Martha Henry this was different. This was final. I thought, “Don’t you dare wave like that as if it’s the end. Don’t!

I knew there were festivities backstage. I waited for Martha when they were finished. She came out the stage door with her daughter Emma pushing the wheelchair and Diana Leblanc with them. I gave Martha her traditional Tootsie Pop as thanks for such a gift of a performance. She was glad/surprised to see me saying she sent me a card and if she knew I was going to be there, she would have given it to me.

I had given Diana a bottle of champagne to give to Martha for her past birthday in February. I always gave her a bottle of champagne for her birthday, but because of COVID was not able to this year. The three-hour break between Act I in the afternoon and Act II in the evening was a perfect time to pass on the bottle. I figured that was quick—to have written a card of thanks for the champagne and mailed it—was pure Martha.

Martha was tired. I squeezed her hand—because of her fragile health I dared not kiss her cheek, thanked her again and said good-bye. It was the last time I would see her.

On Tuesday night Diana e-mailed me and said that Martha was sleeping most of the time and being given her pain killers intravenously. By a nurse. I was stunned. “Is she leaving us?” I e-mailed back. “Yes” was the reply. Emma, Diana and a few other close friends kept vigil by Martha’s bedside.

I received Martha’s card on Oct. 15. It wasn’t a card thanking me for her birthday champagne. It was a card saying good-bye in the most elegant, sensitive, funny ‘Martha way’ without actually using those words. And a smiling, joyful Marilyn Monroe was on the front of the card. I sobbed reading it. Typical of Martha, thinking of others right to the end.

Martha Henry died a little after midnight, Oct. 21. She was 83.  

When Diana e-mailed me at 12:38 am that Martha was gone, I went to the fridge to find something to drink to toast her. At the bottom of the shelf at the back was a bottle of wine. I was stunned when I read the label. It was chardonnay. I don’t drink chardonnay. But Martha Henry does/did. I think I might have bought it to give to her the next time we met for dinner. Martha Henry, gone but not really gone, always there even when we don’t realize it.  

Here’s to you and thank you, dearest Martha, for a life filled with the finest art; being the most supportive, encouraging, guiding friend and being an example of what a truly special human being really is.

Love,

Lynn  

Leave a Comment

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mary Kerr November 4, 2021 at 10:40 pm

Beautiful…..

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2 Joe Szekeres November 4, 2021 at 11:14 pm

So poignantly written and felt. Thank you for sharing.

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3 Corrine Koslo November 4, 2021 at 11:41 pm

Oh dear Lynn.
I am so sorry you have lost your dear friend and what a dear friend indeed!
I send love.
You were so lucky to have had so much of her, Christmas’s and such a deep friendship!
I believe there will be no one ever again such as dear Martha, but I can hear her response..
“Oh Don’t be ridiculous! “

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4 Harold Povilaitis November 4, 2021 at 11:44 pm

Thank you SO MUCH, Lynn, for such a heartfelt tribute … which brought back SO MANY special memories of such a remarkable artist !

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5 Jim Cressman November 4, 2021 at 11:47 pm

I’m in tears. But tears of joy for having had the pleasure and honour of seeing her on stage and for your beautiful, heartfelt memories and tribute to a remarkable lady.

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6 Elaine Calder November 5, 2021 at 12:06 am

You’ve captured her beautifully, Lynn. How fortunate you are to have known her so closely, and spent so much time with her – and with Diana. And your memories of some of her performances are so vivid, they bring mine rushing back.
Thank you for this. And try to like chardonnay, to have one more thing to remember her by.

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7 Wayne Fairhead November 5, 2021 at 9:13 am

Thanks Lynn for this deeply personal and loving tribute to Canadadian treasure Martha Henry. How blessed were you to be her friend. So grateful I got to see her stunning swan song Three Tall Women.

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8 Barbara Pollard November 5, 2021 at 11:25 am

This is the story I’ve needed to read, since she passed. I was there for 5 years when Robin started. I was in the Measure and Richard and was best pals with Geordie at University. It’s comforting to read this terrific table of her accomplishments from a friend. Thank you.

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9 Tim Ziegler November 5, 2021 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for this Lynn. Beautiful.

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10 Geordie Johnson November 5, 2021 at 2:19 pm

Thanks, Lynn. Lovely.
XXXG

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11 Maja Ardal November 6, 2021 at 7:33 am

Beautiful! You captured the power of Martha with the power of words.

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12 Ken MacDonald November 6, 2021 at 4:45 pm

Oh Lynn. I am so sorry for your loss. I did not know how close you were to Martha …what a beautifully written tribute to her. Thanks you so much for putting your love into words.
Ken

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13 Kyra November 7, 2021 at 8:16 am

Thanks for this lovely article about Martha Lynn. Just wanted to add, I think Martha’s first full cast directing gig was Top Girls at the Globe Theatre in Regina in the 80’s. And Diana was in it, which is where I first met and worked with them both. Lucky me!
It was an extraordinary experience, one of those times as an actor that you never forget, the show, the cast, the ‘I can’t wait to get to the theatre to do it’ the joy of going to work and knowing that you are part of something magical. It was a gift.
As you know I saw that last performance of Three Tall Women too, and am still astonished at the ferocity and focus that Martha exuded. A parting gift that we were so fortunate to receive.

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14 Barbara Gordon November 7, 2021 at 8:41 am

Thank you for this, Lynn.

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15 Brian Robertson November 7, 2021 at 9:48 am

Lynn, thank you for sharing this with us; so beautiful, so moving and so very personal.
Your fan always, B.

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16 Mikaela Davies November 7, 2021 at 5:55 pm

Beautiful words, Lynn.

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17 Shannon November 7, 2021 at 7:12 pm

Lynn,

Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful memorial.
She was legendary.

All my love to you,
Shannon

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18 Dorothy-Lynne Byrne-Jones November 8, 2021 at 5:51 pm

Martha Henry will be missed by the Stratford community and the theatre world.

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19 Nancy McNee November 9, 2021 at 6:11 am

Oh Lynn,

Scrape me off the floor! You described the woman I was lucky enough to see interact with my Mother. Now that was a pair! Their work at The Grand was simply dynamic!

Maybe they are sitting in some audience in the sky watching a new production and wondering if we like it or not!

Thank you for such a heartfelt sendoff.

With love, Nancy

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20 Andrew Johnson November 17, 2021 at 1:52 am

Wow.
So beautiful.
All of it.

Thank you.
Both of you.

A
xox

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21 David Dunn Bauer November 28, 2021 at 10:11 pm

Dear Lynn,

This is wonderful. All these years, and I had no idea about Martha’s interest in Marilyn. I’m compiling a list of things I intend to ask her about in the afterlife. You just added a topic.

She was unique as an artist and friend. I love reading and hearing remembrances of her, because they are always so vivid (no one has ever had a generic memory of Martha Henry), and it’s like getting another fragment of time with her.

Congratulations on paying that dinner bill.

Blessings,

David

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22 Lynn November 28, 2021 at 10:38 pm

Ah David, this is just such a wonderful message. Your remembrance of her at her memorial was stunning and perfect and so moving, so I am so charmed and blushing for your kind words. Yes, Marilyn Monroe and pens–all sorts of pens, including spiffy fountain pens. She loved those… (ps. really? David? There’s an afterlife? Who knew. Well you would…..xo

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