Wit by Margaret Edson, directed by Glynis Leyshon, with Seana McKenna, Jim Mezon, Joy Coghill, Alex Poch-Goldin, Kirsten Willamson, Marjorie Chan, Kevin Loring, Geneviève Steele and Todd Thomson. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front East). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 15) and runs to March 10, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$60, limited Monday pwyc and half-price same-day rush. 416-368-3110.
vancouver -- seana mckenna Rating: NNNNN
Vancouver -- Seana Mckennawalks up to me in the restaurant, smiles warmly and removes her hat. Then she notices my shock."Yes, it's real," she says, touching the hairy stitches on her bald forehead, rolling her eyes upward.
"But I'm fine."
A few days ago, she hit her head on her hotel bathtub. She was alone in her room, feeling weak after a bout of food poisoning.
Suddenly, she found herself in the bathroom, surrounded by blood.
"I think the fall woke me up," she says. "I knocked on (fellow actor) Jim Mezon's door and we went to the hospital."
She could have died.
Neither of us says this, but it's what we're thinking. If the fall had knocked her out instead of waking her up, she wouldn't be here now, munching on fruit salad and flirting ever so slightly with the cute waiter.
"That was that," she says laconically. "It happens."
No melodramatics. The woman who some say is the foremost stage actor of her generation has a different style.
In Vancouver, McKenna is wrapping up her run in Wit, Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about an English professor with ovarian cancer.
It's a great play -- one of those works, says McKenna, that can change how you look at life, your own and others'.
And the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing, John Donne scholar, is massive. For 1 hour and 45 minutes, she's onstage almost every second. She becomes a five-year-old precocious child, a brilliant student and finally an independent woman alone in agony.
Women actors of a certain age -- on the other side of 40, let's say -- are clamouring to play the part. Martha Henry and Rosemary Dunsmore are currently in other productions, and Emma Thompson is rumoured to have snagged the lead in the film.
But the role seems fitted for McKenna's talents.
She radiates warmth, but also has reserves of steely coldness.
When I point out these qualities, she laughs.
"Good acting, huh?"
I'll say. Her Medea last season at Stratford was white-knuckle powerful (see sidebar), and theatregoers still talk about her revelatory Theatre Plus St. Joan (another shaven-headed character, by the way) and her 1984 Stratford Juliet.
Fact is, she's had the sort of career Meryl Streep might have had had she stayed in the theatre.
Her one major foray into film, the mother who walks out on her family in Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden, won her a Genie Award. That was five years ago. Instead of capitalizing on the award -- or at least the attention -- she returned to the stage.
"I don't even know if I've gone to a film audition since," she says, looking up at the ceiling and displaying her strong jaw, a frequent McKenna-ism.
"No, maybe one. A producer called me up and wanted to see me. But I haven't made a real attempt to seek work in film and TV."
Partly it's because of the limited types of roles available in those media.
"I tended to be cast as the lower-income woman with the good heart," she laughs. "Whenever I saw the costumes, I knew the brown dresses were mine."
But more likely it's because of the wealth of great roles for women on the stage. Name any big women's part, and she's played it. Lady Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, Masha, Cleopatra, Blanche, Maggie.
How can you compare these to Hetty's mom on Road To Avonlea?
McKenna remembers growing up in Etobicoke and taking part in kids' plays directed by a neighbourhood mom who happened to be an actor.
After her first year studying English at U of T, she was accepted at the National Theatre School and went to Montreal assuming she'd give acting up if after five years she couldn't make a living. It was her 1984 performance as Juliet in Stratford that changed everything.
Married to director Miles (The Drawer Boy) Potter and the mother of a three-year-old son, McKenna expects her life will change again soon.
Her time here in Vancouver is the first time she's been away from her son, and talking to her, you can tell her mind is somewhere else.
"I love the mountains here, the sea is spectacular, but it's not home," she says.
"You know what? It's closing night tonight, but I'm already at home with my family."
Later that afternoon, I watch McKenna's performance for the second time, this time from the stage manager's booth.
Ironically, she seems smaller than ever, a woman in a red baseball cap and blue sheet, hooked to an IV line.
We're getting to one of the play's most moving moments.
"Look at the audience," whispers the stage manager, who's seen the show dozens of times now.
Heads are bobbing up and down, hands dabbing at eyes. There's a collective feeling of grief and catharsis.
For the curtain call, after a startling nude scene, McKenna emerges in a silk robe, appearing simultaneously exhausted, relieved, and full of gratitude and concern.
"There was a woman in the audience who couldn't look up at me. She was trying to, but she was weeping so much," says McKenna later. "I wanted to tell everyone that I was OK, to release you into the night without worry. I'm fine."
(Stratford, 1984) If you ever thought that Prokofiev's ballet version of the romantic story worked better than Shakespeare's, you probably never caught McKenna's amorous Juliet, an impassioned teen who sacrificed everything for her love.