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After 60 years as a performer, 47 Stratford seasons and a long, private struggle with cancer, she stood tall in a finale that the COVID-19 pandemic delayed but could not stop

Martha Henry plays a character known simply as A in Three Tall Women earlier this year. She died on Thursday at the age of 83.V. Tony Hauser/The Stratford Festival

As a theatre critic, I only caught the last stretch of the 60-year period Martha Henry spent as one of Canada’s foremost stage performers. But it never felt like I was coming in at the tail end of a career or after a heyday.

Indeed, Ms. Henry, who died Thursday at 83, gave what will surely go down as one of her most extraordinary performances in what turned out to be the very final months of her life. It’s hard to imagine she ever gave a better one.

Ms. Henry was absolutely ferocious in her portrayal of the bullying elderly woman known only as A at the centre of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, in a production directed by her long-time collaborator Diana Leblanc, which marked the resumption of indoor, in-person theatre at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ont., this summer.

The range and sheer chops she showed in the part were astonishing – from demonstrating A’s tyrannical side with a booming voice that still could knock you back in your seat, to an extended stretch of existential wailing that felt like a Beckett play in miniature, to the uncomfortable vulnerability she evinced in a chilling monologue about a twisted sexual encounter delivered in a childlike tenor.

We now know exactly how close audiences came to missing out on this riveting performance by Ms. Henry – which thankfully, since it was performed to reduced capacity, has been filmed for posterity.

Henry, middle, holds hands with her Three Tall Women co-stars Mamie Zwettler (C) and Lucy Peacock (B).V. Tony Hauser/The Stratford Festival

Ms. Henry had originally been set to play A – a role she had first taken on 25 years earlier at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton – as part of Stratford’s cancelled 2020 season. Then, she and her castmates were expected to be the first up on stage at Stratford this summer until confusion regarding Ontario’s reopening restrictions pushed Three Tall Women’s run back to August.

When I saw Ms. Henry using a walker in the show on its long-delayed opening night, I initially thought it was a choice; A’s body is failing her on multiple fronts – and Ms. Henry wielded that walker almost like a weapon, picking it up and banging it on the floor to intimidate others.

Later in the run, Ms. Henry switched to performing the part from a manual wheelchair – and again incorporated its use into her portrayal. At one point in the show, A turned that wheelchair into a battering ram, charging at her son to demonstrate her contempt for him. (This is according to a vivid account by theatre critic Lynn Slotkin, who witnessed and wrote about the production’s final performance at the Studio Theatre in Stratford.)

Less than a week after Three Tall Women closed on Oct. 9, Ms. Henry’s health deteriorated – following a long, private battle with cancer – to the point that an e-mail was sent out to her former students preparing them for the impending news. She died less than two weeks after her final bow on the stage.

Did Three Tall Women open at the last possible moment for Ms. Henry to be able to perform in it? Or did the act of performing in it keep her alive longer than she would have lived otherwise?

Henry's Stratford roles included Shakespearean classics like Joan La Poucelle in Henry VI (1966), top; Constance in King John (1974), middle left; and Lady Anne in Richard III (1977), middle right. She was also Winnie in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days (1986), bottom left, and Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes (1996), bottom right.Photos: Peter Smith, Robert C. Ragsdale and Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival

There was, no doubt, a uniquely symbiotic relationship between Ms. Henry and the Stratford Festival. Originally from Detroit, she visited the Ontario theatre company as a teen where she was inspired by seeing Christopher Plummer play Hamlet – and ended up moving to Canada after university because of its existence.

She then became the very first graduate of the National Theatre School in Montreal, awarded her diploma ahead of the rest of her class in 1962 because she was cast as Miranda in a production of The Tempest at Stratford. That was the first of what ended up being 47 seasons at the festival.

Ms. Henry’s obituaries will no doubt highlight her Shakespearean performances from when artistic director Robin Phillips ran the place in the 1970s and, not uncoincidentally, international critics visited on a regular basis. Her Isabella in Measure for Measure and Lady Anne in Richard III from that period remain legendary.

For a while, it seemed like that might well be her peak. Ms. Henry pivoted, before that word became popular, in part toward directing in the 1980s because, she told me a few years back, ”I knew when I got to be a certain age, there wouldn’t be as many parts available for me.” Indeed, when she was not cast at all in the Stratford Festival’s 60th-anniversary season in 2012, it was seen as part of the plight of older female actors.

But I’d like to make the argument as I mourn her that Ms. Henry’s heyday on stage was as much this past decade as it was any other.

Changes in the theatre industry allowed that to be. On the one hand, more contemporary playwrights began writing meaty works for women of her age. In 2012, Ms. Henry absolutely scorched the stage at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg playing another monstrous matriarch in August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. And, just a month before the pandemic hit in 2020, Ms. Henry was in Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime at the Coal Mine Theatre in Toronto playing a woman in her 80s – and the robot who replaces her in her family after she dies. She earned a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination for that beguiling performance.

Henry as the sorcerer Prospero and Michael Blake as Caliban in The Tempest.David Hou/Stratford Festival

Meanwhile, big institutional theatres like the Stratford Festival (which still has never had a sole female artistic director, or had a woman share that role for more than a season) finally started to be more creative in their casting of classic roles – allowing Ms. Henry to once again to fill the Festival Theatre with her sonorous voice playing a paradoxical Prospero, who was both frail and powerful in The Tempest in 2018.

It’s impossible for me to separate that fine performance from the indomitability she displayed on opening night when a bomb threat shut down the show. Ms. Henry marched over to the nearby Bruce Hotel, Prospero’s magic staff still in hand, and rallied the troupe from the bar.

Ms. Henry played a direct role in initiating the positive changes at Stratford that allowed her to play that Prospero. When I think of the great moments I’ve witnessed there, the 2009 production of Three Sisters she directed comes to mind – in which Lucy Peacock starred as 25-year-old Masha despite being nearly twice the character’s age. Whether or not this was a purposefully feminist piece of casting, it was a richly rewarding one: Ms. Peacock was extraordinary, not least in a scene Ms. Henry memorably staged where Masha and Tom McCamus’s Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin were intimate from a distance. (“The two have chemistry like vinegar and baking soda – and when they make love with words from across a room, it is positively volcanic,” I wrote at the time.)

Ms. Henry helped also to shift Stratford toward the practice known as colour-conscious casting with her 2016 production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which received rave reviews from all corners.

I’ve seen and reviewed the work of many stage legends long after the productions that brought them to prominence – and it can sometimes be a disappointment. You wonder: Did I miss their prime? Were they never quite as good as advertised? I never felt like about Ms. Henry – in fact, I feel lucky to have caught and written about her work when I did. I will miss her.

Henry watches the swans from the banks of Stratford's Avon River in 2008.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

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