The twinkle in the eye. The taste for mischief. The signature greeting: “Hi, monkey!” No actor had a better sense that a play is “play” than Mary Haney. But the merry woman who could puncture pomposity in a rehearsal hall with a jab of her sharp wit was also the serious one who could dig deep into the complexities of Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan or Sean O’Casey’s Juno Boyle.
As one of the pillars of the celebrated acting ensemble at Canada’s Shaw Festival, Ms. Haney shone both in classic leading roles (Joan, Juno, the eponymous entrepreneur of Mrs. Warren’s Profession) and, more often, in the kind of supporting ones that, in her hands, elicited strings of superlatives from the critics.
Ms. Haney, who died on Feb. 24 of cancer at 65, spent 33 seasons at the festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., appearing in more than 60 productions. Her time there encompassed the tenures of two long-serving artistic directors, both of whom marvelled at her abilities.
“There was a sensitivity to her playing that was quite remarkable,” Christopher Newton, who ran the festival from 1980 to 2002, said. “As a person, she was very straightforward, and yet onstage it was so complex, what she could do. She was a constant surprise.”
Jackie Maxwell, who succeeded Mr. Newton from 2003 to 2016, described Ms. Haney’s acting as “funny and fierce” on the surface, but with a gift for letting a character’s vulnerabilities slowly, poignantly seep through. And her ribald offstage personality – a stranger once described her as “that little lady who curses like a truck driver” – was the colourful front for a dedicated artist. “She came up with such original takes on characters,” Ms. Maxwell said. “In rehearsal she kept our feet to the fire. We’d all have to work as hard as she did.”
Ms. Haney’s love of play would seem to be a family trait. After all, her big brothers, John and Chris, were the developers of the massively popular Trivial Pursuit board game. She played a part in its invention. “Back in the early eighties, when we were writing questions for the game, we’d bounce them off Mary,” John Haney recalled. “If Mary got the answer, we’d say, ‘We’ve got to throw that one out, it’s too easy!’ It became a joke.” In the end, though, she contributed trivia to the game’s entertainment category and was one of its early investors.
Ms. Haney’s acting talent was also in her blood. Her vivacious mother, Sheila Haney, was a British-born actor who also performed at the Shaw and Stratford festivals. As Sheila Woollatt, she’d studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London before meeting and marrying Canadian soldier Jack Haney during the Second World War. She immigrated to Canada in 1946, where Jack worked as a news director for radio stations in small-town Ontario and New Brunswick, Sheila acted in community theatre and the couple raised a family.
Mary Beverley Elizabeth Haney, their third and youngest child, was born on Dec. 16, 1954, in Welland, Ont. John Haney said his little sister “always had a penchant for acting, and Mom sort of pushed her in that direction.” By the time Mary was a teenager, Sheila Haney had left behind amateur groups for a professional career at Shaw and Stratford. Mary spent her summers at the festivals, getting her first theatre job as a dresser backstage at Stratford.
In the winter of 1972, she accompanied her mother out west, where Sheila was playing the Nurse in a Theatre Calgary production of Romeo and Juliet. (The show’s Romeo was a young, unknown Christopher Walken.) That’s when she got serious about acting. “There were a lot of youngish people in that show, who had been to a school called the National Theatre School,” she recalled in a 2010 interview. “They said, ‘Why don’t you think about trying out for it?’” She did, got in and “loved it.”
Ms. Haney went on to join the Shaw company in 1978 and, a season later, performed alongside her mother in a production of the Emlyn Williams classic The Corn is Green. In 1981, she left Niagara-on-the-Lake to be part of artistic director John Hirsch’s first season at Stratford and remained there through his five-year tenure. The remounting of a Stratford show at Toronto Free Theatre – Brian Friel’s Translations – earned her a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination in 1983. Over the years, she would continue to act at theatres across Canada and in the U.S. during the winter season.
In 1986, Mr. Newton invited her back to the Shaw, where she firmly planted herself for the next 30 years. He claimed she had left the festival originally because he wouldn’t cast her in the title role of Saint Joan, but when she returned, she finally got her shot at it. Her beautifully wrought performance in director Neil Munro’s bold 1993 modern-dress version turned out to be not just a career pinnacle, but one that is still talked about more than two decades later. During Joan of Arc’s trial, when Ms. Haney’s anguished face was captured in close-up by video monitors, Maclean’s theatre critic John Bemrose wrote that she “touch[ed] the sublime.”
Later, Ms. Haney would also win plaudits in major dramatic roles under Ms. Maxwell’s reign, playing the shrewd English mother in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (2008) and the heroic Irish one in Juno and the Paycock (2014). When she delivered Juno Boyle’s famous third-act speech, wrote Globe and Mail critic J. Kelly Nestruck, she broke “the fourth wall and every heart in the audience.”
But Ms. Haney was perhaps best known as an ace comic actor who could steal a scene without saying a word – as she did in Mr. Newton’s 2007 production of The Cassilis Engagement, when her cockney character slowly, hilariously fell asleep from sheer boredom while listening to a dreary classical recital. “She had absolutely elegant timing,” Mr. Newton said.
Ms. Haney led a sometimes-tempestuous life in her earlier years. There was a marriage that failed – although she remained good pals with her ex-husband – and wild escapades that she later turned into entertaining anecdotes. “She was completely unapologetic and open about her past,” said long-time friend Dorothy Chamberlain.
Although she enjoyed being naughty and outrageous – the perennial scorekeeper for the traditional Stratford-Shaw cricket match, she once boasted that she’d been intimate with members of both teams – the tomfoolery hid a gentle, even fragile soul.
“There was a lot to life outside of the theatre that made dear Mary a little nervous,” said fellow actor Marla McLean, who co-starred with her in Juno and Michel Tremblay’s Albertine in Five Times. “And yet there was not a time that I was onstage with her when she wasn’t absolutely fearless. The stage was her home.”
Ms. McLean was part of the younger generation of Shaw actors who looked up to Ms. Haney as a mentor, although Ms. Haney resisted that term. She liked to tease them, riff with them, invite them over to watch Toronto Blue Jays games and eat ice cream. “Mary was an ice cream fiend,” said actor Jennifer Dzialoszynski, who came to regard her as a mother figure. Ms. Haney, unable to pronounce her last name, fondly called her “Ducks” and gave her advice on playing Shavian roles that she herself had done in her younger days. “She really understood how to get the most out of [Shaw’s] language.”
Ms. Haney owned a house in Stratford and rented a cottage in Niagara-on-the-Lake, both with back gardens that she delighted in. “She loved gardening,” Ms. McLean said. “It was one of the places where she went for peace and calm.”
Diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 2019, the much-loved Ms. Haney spent her final days at her Stratford home, engulfed by a steady flow of friends and flowers. Predeceased by her brother Chris, who died in 2010, she leaves John, the family’s eldest sibling, and seven nieces and nephews.