I only had the opportunity to encounter Gina Wilkinson once, when she was interviewed by Derek Boyes at Friday Night at the Young, just before the Opening of Wide Awake Hearts, which she directed, at Tarragon Theatre. At that time, she was on the move, making jokes about how she and her partner, Tom Rooney, supposedly had a home in Stratford, as apparently that is where they lived, but that she hadn’t had the time to live there yet. She was leaving the city for Winnipeg, before Wide Awake Hearts even opened, she said, to begin on her next project, The Seafarer at the Manitoba Theatre Centre. It was there that she fell ill and was diagnosed with Stage Four Cervical Cancer. She fought valiantly, but sadly she passed away on December 30th, 2010. She was only fifty years old.
I was shocked and so saddened to hear about the passing of Peter Donaldson, a great Canadian theatre actor that I had the great privilege of seeing in three knockout productions with three different theatre companies in the past two years. Mr. Donaldson passed away from lung cancer at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto on January 8th, 2011.
Pete was born Peter Thomas Donaldson on October 29th, 1953 in Midland, Ontario to Betty and Norman Donaldson. As a student at Midland Secondary School, he performed in a production of Brigadoon and an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet and also attended productions at the Stratford Festival as a teenager before going on to study at the University of Guelph and in New York under Uta Hagen, Stella Adler and Olympia Dukakis. He then made his own Stratford debut in a production of Romeo and Juliet in 1977 where the two title characters were played by Richard Monette and Marti Maraden, both future Artistic Directors of the company. Donaldson would go on to spend twenty-five years at the Festival where two of his pinnacle performances are largely considered to be his performance as Jamie in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which was later made into a film and garnered him a 1996 Genie Award and the lead role in Timon of Athens, where he brought “a hard, cold brilliance to the title role.” Other memorable Stratford performances include, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Caesar and Cleopatra (as Ruffio to Christopher Plummer’s Caesar), To Kill a Mockingbird, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Ghosts, Antony and Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Taming of the Shrew, Hamlet, King Lear, Twelfth Night, Hello Dolly!, Into the Woods, The Threepenny Opera and Guys and Dolls.
Des McAnuff, Stratford’s current Artistic Director was both “saddened” and “shocked” to hear of Donaldson’s “ultimately passing” and remarked, “”No one who enjoyed his stellar performances at Stratford and elsewhere could have doubted that even greater triumphs lay ahead of him, and our sorrow is all the deeper when we think of the King Lear or the Prospero we might someday have seen him play but now have lost forever,” Stratford’s General Director, Antoni Cimolino, echoes similar sentiments saying, “Peter was the finest actor’s actor. He was deeply admired for the conviction he brought to his work and the unsparing truth of his portrayals. He was versatile and able to give outstanding performances in modern plays, musicals and classics. But his home was Shakespeare. He spent a lifetime at the Stratford Festival and gave us a world of great performances. Peter was now coming into the best, deepest and richest part of his talent. We will not know exactly what we have lost from his sad early passing. We are only left to wonder and mourn.” Of him, CBC Arts Reporter Martin Marrow said, “Peter Donaldson was one of Canada’s acting treasures, a consummate classical actor with a gorgeous voice just made for speaking Shakespeare. He was so at ease on Stratford’s Festival stage, you felt like he was in his living room.”
I was first introduced to Peter Donaldson in the original 2009 Soulpepper production of Glengarry Glen Ross directed by David Storch, in which Donaldson played the vengeful, cutthroat Moss, inhabiting brilliantly David Mamet’s electric, fiery dialogue. He had previously played the Stage Manager in Joseph Ziegler’s critically acclaimed production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in 1999 also for Soulpepper. Albert Schultz, Soulpepper’s Artistic Director said of Donaldson, that he was “a great actor, a great friend, and devoted and loving husband and father. His greatness in all walks of life stemmed from the fact that he was so firmly rooted in the earth. With Peter, in his life and in his art, there was such strength, power and honestly. He brought great skill and humanity to everything he did and taught an entire generation by example. Peter, through his exemplary life and body of work, brought dignity and honour to his community and will be as greatly missed as he was greatly loved.”
I was also enraptured by Donaldson’s performances in George F. Walker’s And So It Goes at Factory Theatre early last season and also in Yasmina Reza’s Art at Canadian Stage. I had no idea at the time that Donaldson had been diagnosed with lung cancer; there wasn’t an ounce of him, or his performance, that seemed sick, weak or in any way off his A-game. Both performances were formidable ones, a comic turn with Colin Mochrie and Evan Buliung in Art and an emotionally riveting portrayal of Ned with Martha Burns and Jenny Young at Factory.
According to J. Kelly Nestruck’s article about Donaldson in The Globe and Mail, during the last year of his career “he would often go to chemotherapy in the morning, then rehearse or perform in the evenings. ‘He had such great energy – he never made you feel like he needed special treatment,’ recalled (George F.) Walker, who also directed Donaldson in his TV series This is Wonderland and Living in my Car. ‘It’s a great loss. People say that all the time about people. But he had so much great work in him.’ Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic Director at Canadian Stage said poignantly, ‘In my view, Peter was one of the greatest actors this country has produced, equally at ease with the classical repertoire and with most forms of contemporary writing. His deep humanity and wry humour were in full bloom in his recent, unforgettably subtle performance in Art.’”
Onscreen, he appeared in Atom Egoyan’s film The Sweet Hereafter (1997), as Reverend Leonard on Road to Avonlea and as Ian Bowles on the televised series Emily of New Moon, where his character fell in love with sweet Aunt Laura, played by his beloved wife of 25 years Sheila McCarthy.
Also according to Nestruck, Donaldson and McCarthy’s relationship began in 1983 in London, Ontario, at the Grand Theatre, when it was run by Artistic Director Robin Phillips. Nestruck writes, “According to one version of the story, McCarthy was conducting an aerobics class for the company and Donaldson showed up to participate. ‘It was love at first sight,’ McCarthy told The Globe and Mail in an interview after they were married in December, 1986, at The Church, a restaurant in Stratford. Apparently, Brent Carver sang “Moon River” and “Nothing’s Going to Harm You” from Sweeney Todd at the wedding (!). The couple have two daughters, MacKenzie and Drew.
Donaldson also had a longstanding friendship with legendary Canadian broadcaster Peter Mansbridge, who he would often beat at golf, while also apparently regaling his golfing friends (mostly journalists and politicians) with lectures about Shakespeare. My favourite quote about Donaldson comes from Mansbridge, once again courtesy of Kelly Nestruck, who says, “Peter was never shy about putting forward his opinion on things – whether that was the direction of a show or the management, he was always outspoken. When he’d see B- or C-level Americans getting jobs in this country that A-level Canadians were being passed over for – whether it was film or theatre – it would drive him crazy.”
Along with Sheila, MacKenzie, Drew and his “honorary daughter” Martha, Peter was also a devoted brother to Dan Donaldson and Victoria Warwick and was a beloved uncle, friend and mentor as well as an inspiration to the acting community. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Princess Margaret Hospital would be appreciated. Friends and family are invited to a celebration of Peter’s life in Toronto to be announced. A second celebration will be held in the spring at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
In the remarkably brief time that we sat in the same room I was utterly mesmerized by Gina. As I said, Derek Boyes was interviewing her, or attempting to, but she kept turning the question on its heels or giving the most unsuspecting answer that the conversation completely derailed for a tantalizing moment before she seamlessly manoeuvred her way onto another topic, or segued back into her former thought. She struck me as being remarkably honest, so honest that I almost felt that it was a revelation to listen to her because she had absolutely no pretence. She wasn’t trying to butter you up, or to endear herself, to make the room feel comfortable or even to sell to you the play that she was working on, she was simply going to impart an opinion, with wit and razor sharp candour, and the room could take it for all it was worth. I found Gina utterly unique in this brief moment and refreshing. She wasn’t going to pussyfoot around the story; she was going to delve right in. Immediately I saw bravery, integrity and intelligence shining in her eyes. I wanted to listen to her speak far more than she did, I was on the edge of my seat, cursing myself for not transcribing the whole conversation, while trying to hold on to her every last syllable. There was a slight sardonic edge to her stories about the past, but one that was softened by how obvious it was that she loved her life and the work that she was getting to do in theatres across the country. She was also completely devoid of ego. In the briefest of time that I sat in her presence she made me laugh heartily and she made me want to get to know her better. Tragically, I won’t get that chance.
Gina Clare Wilkinson was born in Victoria, British Columbia the daughter of Marie, who ran a ballet school and Jack, a painter with an art studio. Like many young girls, Gina started her theatrical life in ballet, but switched to theatre when she was twelve years old. She began to take drama classes at the Norfolk House School and went on to graduate from the National Theatre School of Canada in 1979. She made her debut as an actor at the Stratford Festival in 1983. Throughout the years she worked steadfastly in theatres across the country including Tarragon Theatre, Canadian Stage, Factory Theatre, Theatre Passe Muraille, The National Arts Centre (Ottawa), Neptune Theatre (Halifax), Citadel Theatre (Edmonton), Theatre Calgary, Manitoba Theatre Centre (Winnipeg), The Globe (Regina), Vancouver Playhouse and The Belfry Theatre (Victoria).
Gina was also a playwright; she wrote and directed her first play My Mother’s Feet at Canadian Stage in 2005 and also directed it in Germany in 2008. Her other plays include Whistle Me Home (Summerworks) and Andersen’s Inkwell (Geordie Theatre, created with Micheline Chevrier.)
She began directing in 1997 in the Toronto Fringe Festival and went on to direct plays at the Belfry Theatre, The Grand, Theatre Aquarius, The Blyth Festival, Alberta Theatre Projects and even directed a production of Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet in Munich, Germany. Her breakout production is largely considered to be the 2009 smash-hit and critically acclaimed Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival, which she stepped into to replace an ailing Neil Munro. It was this production that made Wilkinson a most exciting and sought-after director for the last two years of her life. She returned to Shaw in 2010, directing J.M. Barrie’s Half an Hour and made her debut at Soulpepper, directing Faith Healer by Brian Friel.
The only production of Gina’s that I saw was Brendan Gall’s play Wide Awake Hearts, which she directed for the Tarragon Theatre last November. I found her direction to be, like her, richly distinctive, bright, and compelling, with unexpected twists. I remember feeling like I had happened upon an auteur as I left the Tarragon that night, and hers was a career that I looked forward to seeing continue to bloom. She was supposed to direct Shaw’s Candida for the Festival this coming summer, instead Tadeusz Bradecki will direct the show in memory of her. It makes my heart ache to see such a bright candle snuffed out far, far, far too soon.
Gina leaves behind her great love of eleven years, Tom Rooney, whom she married on December 19th, 2010 at the hospital, as well as her mother, Marie Wilkinson, brothers, Adam and Martin, and their children Dylan, Ryan, Sarah and Mathew.
Donations to help establish the Gina Wilkinson Award for Emerging Female Directors can be made payable to “Ontario Arts Foundation In memory of Gina Wilkinson ” and sent to the Ontario Arts Foundation, 151 Bloor St W, 5th floor, Toronto, ON, M5S 1T6, Attention: Alan Walker, Executive Director. 614824. There will also be a celebration of Gina’s life on Monday January 24th, 2011 at 3:00pm at the Jane Mallet Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street E). All are welcome to attend.
Graham Harley, who was last seen onstage this summer in Soulpepper’s production of Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, passed away surrounded by his family and friends on December 23rd, 2010.
Born in England, Harley, who wrote his PhD thesis on Restoration playwright Sir John Vanrugh, first taught in the United States before coming to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto and to make his mark on the theatre community here. He co-founded and acted as Artistic Director of the Phoenix Theatre in 1974, initially using a playing space in a second floor space on Dupont, which had once been a shoe factory. There he staged works by contemporary writers such as Simon Gray, David Mamet, Edward Bond, Alan Ayckbourn and Canadians such as Allan Stratton and Margaret Hollingsworth.
He appeared as an actor at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, as well as at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, Tarragon Theatre, Factory Theatre, Canadian Stage, Necessary Angel and Thèâtre Français. He was nominated for a Dora Award and a Jessie Richardson Award (Vancouver) for his role in David Pownall’s play Master Class.
His film and television roles are extensive, although he is perhaps best known for his role of Cyril on Slings and Arrows, he was also Caravaggio on Starhunter and played Walter the Concierge in Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime. Mr. Cibber of Drury Lane, Harley’s first play, was commissioned by the Stratford Festival for its CBC Radio/Bank of Montreal series, in which it was broadcast in June 1997, starring Bernard Hopkins.
He leaves his lifelong friend Jon Comerford, his God-children Jordan and Hunter, his niece Joanne and he is the great-uncle of Rackan, Hakeem and Amaly.
richard monette and domini blythe in 1972
It is with great sadness that I write about the death of Domini Blythe, a veteran actor of the Stratford Festival who passed away from cancer in Montreal on December 15th, 2010.
She was born into a theatrical family in 1947 in England and studied at the Central School of Drama in London before working with the Royal Shakespeare Company. She went on to perform in the very controversial West End erotic revue Oh! Calcutta!, created by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan. It was in this show that she met Canadian actor Richard Monette, and her relationship with him brought her to Canada in 1972. She spent three seasons at the Shaw Festival, where she played, among other roles, Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra. In 1976, at the invitation of Artistic Director Robin Phillips, she joined the company at the Stratford Festival. That year she played leading roles in The Way of the World, The Merchant of Venice and Antony and Cleopatra.
Other performances at the Stratford Festival include many leading roles, including Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest with William Hutt, directed by former Artistic Director Robin Phillips; the title role in Miss Julie; Sorel in Hay Fever; Celia in As You Like It; Lavinia in Titus Andronicus; Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost; Desdemona in Othello; Margery Pinchwife in The Country Wife; Elmire in Tartuffe; Mrs. Shankland and Sybil in Separate Tables; Portia in The Merchant of Venice; Gertrude in Hamlet; The Countess in All’s Well that Ends Well; Frau Lehzen in The Swanne; Mamita in Gigi; Liz Essendine in Present Laughter; and Goneril in King Lear opposite Christopher Plummer. This production of King Lear transferred to Broadway in 2004 and garnered two Tony nominations.
Current Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, Des McAnuff, said of Blythe, “Domini was a magnificent actor and a luminescent beauty. I have long admired her work, and I take comfort in the knowledge that her legacy continues here in Stratford with the many artists that she mentored over the years. She will be missed by hundreds of theatre artists and many thousands of theatre patrons.” General Director, Antoni Cimolino calls Blythe, “a resourceful actress who played a wide variety of roles in the Shakespearean canon” also stating that she was, “perhaps the most beautiful actress of her generation.”
Ms Blythe last appeared on the Stratford stage in 2006 when she played Mistress Quickly in Henry VI Part 1, directed by former Artistic Director Richard Monette, and that same year she staged her one-woman show Fanny Kemble at the Studio Theatre, co-created and directed by Peter Hinton. She had also played leading roles in Richard II and Richard III with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as performing at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, the Saint Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts, the Centaur Theatre in Montreal and at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.
Onscreen, Blythe appeared on such television programs as Mount Royal and in such films as Ties That Bind and The Trotsky among many others.
She is survived by her husband, Jean Beaudin; her father, Richard Blythe; her brother, Ben Blythe, sister-in-law Andrea Schlieker and their two children Lily and Phinn.
To read a heartfelt rememberance of Domini Blythe written by Robert Cushman of The National Post, click here.