The prolific actor/playwright Gina Wilkinson was in the throes of directing her new play, The Seafarer, at the Manitoba Theatre Company late in November when her doctor called with sad news.
The Victoria-born artist - constantly in demand as a stage director since her critically acclaimed, breakout production of Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival in 2009 - was diagnosed Nov. 21 with stage-four cervical cancer. On Thursday afternoon in Toronto, Ms. Wilkinson died at age 50, leaving a cross-country network of grieving colleagues as well as actor/husband Tom Rooney, whom she married in hospital on Dec. 19 after 11 years together.
A graduate of the National Theatre School, Ms. Wilkinson was an incredibly prolific film and television actor for 30 years (This is Wonderland and Atom Egoyan's Ararat), as well as an accomplished playwright (My Mother's Feet and Whistle Me Home, which she wrote for Mr. Rooney).
But friends and family say Ms. Wilkinson found her true, creative calling in recent years as a confident, but collaborative director of live theatre, ranging from Wide Awake Hearts at Toronto's Tarragon, Faith Healer at Soulpepper, Half an Hour at Shaw, and Palmer Park at Stratford, the theatrical town in which Ms. Wilkinson and Mr. Rooney recently purchased a house.
With Ms. Wilkinson's passing, Jackie Maxwell, artistic director at Shaw, said Friday "a brilliantly bright light has gone out in Canadian theatre.
"Gina was very funny, very sexy, and very smart - not a combo that many can pull off, but she did so with unparalleled brio," Ms. Maxwell added. "Her great lust for life, her generosity, energy and joy, drew everyone to her and coupled with her prodigious talent it allowed her to bring out the best in all who worked with her."
Ms. Wilkinson's directing career exploded three summers ago when she stepped in to direct Born Yesterday at the Shaw Festival for director Neil Munro, who was ill with cancer and then died. Ms. Wilkinson was slated to direct Candida at Shaw next summer.
Long-time friend Lindsay Leese, who graduated with Wilkinson from the Montreal-based theatre school, said the rapid-fire spread of Ms. Wilkinson's illness was "all very heartbreaking," but she added her school chum handled it all "beautifully, stoically.
"This woman touched so many people's lives in so many ways," said Ms. Leese, who lives in Toronto. "Professionally, people will remember her excellent taste and inventiveness, and mainly, that they just loved working with her. Personally, people will remember that she was fun and funny, vivaciousness, generous, and caring."
Ms. Wilkinson hails from an artistic family well-known in her native Victoria. Her father, the late Jack Wilkinson, was a prominent artist who created the landmark fountain in Centennial Square. She is survived by her mother, Maria, a former ballet dancer and teacher, and two brothers, Martin and Adam.
Actor Stuart Hughes, who was directed by Ms. Wilkinson in Soulpepper's Faith Healer last year (2010), described her as "challenging in the most delightful way ... and unbelievably well read.
"As a director, she brought influences from such a wide range of world knowledge that inspired you, and pushed you to progress in ways I would never have thought of. That was a gift. She was vigorous and rigorous in the director's chair, and yet completely compassionate, gentle and loving."
In a glass-ceilinged industry where female directors are still scarce, Ms. Wilkinson will be missed. The family plans to set up an award for young female directors in her name.