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

In 1962, a 24-year-old Martha Henry made her Stratford Festival debut playing Miranda to William Hutt’s Prospero in a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “She looked, talked and moved like an angel,” gushed John Pettigrew, one of the festival’s early historians, when recounting her performance. “Within moments of her first entrance it was clear that Stratford must grapple her to itself with hoops of steel for the next century or so.”

Ms. Henry would, in fact, become a towering figure at the festival, as an actor, director, teacher and mentor, for more than half a century. Although she worked at other theatres and acted memorably in films – she seemed a magnet for Genie Awards – her true home was Canada’s esteemed classical repertory company, where she came to be known as its first lady and, latterly, its grande dame.

It wasn’t always a happy domicile – there was a bitter falling-out and a period of estrangement during the 1980s, but that ended in 1994 with her triumphant return in A Long Day’s Journey into Night.

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In 2018, at 80, she brought her Stratford acting career full circle, playing Prospero herself in The Tempest. After 45 seasons and more than 70 roles at the Stratford, Ont., theatre, it would be her Shakespearean swan song.

It was not her final bow, however. That came this year, when she closed out the scaled-back, pandemic version of the festival with one last great performance. In its revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, she portrayed the elderly, acidulous A – a devil of an old lady to neatly contrast with that angelic girl who first trod the Stratford boards.

“It was a rare and rarified journey,” said Lucy Peacock, who starred alongside Ms. Henry in the production.

Ms. Henry died on Thursday from cancer at the age of 83, just 12 days after closing out the show. Although she was gravely ill and often in pain, Ms. Henry gave an incandescent portrayal, right up to the very last performance.

“She just loved doing it,” Ms. Peacock said. “On that last day, she couldn’t have been happier. She was cheeky and impudent and ferocious. She died with her boots on.”

Ms. Henry’s fierce determination was emblematic of her character. “She wasn’t simply an artist, she was a leader,” Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino said. He points to the way Ms. Henry set an example for other female theatre artists in her day. “She broke through the glass ceilings in this country,” he said. “But in addition to that, I can’t think of another artist, male or female, who has had a bigger influence on the Stratford Festival.”

Ms. Henry was born Martha Kathleen Buhs on Feb. 17, 1938, in Detroit. Her parents, Lloyd and Kathleen, separated when she was five years old and Kathleen (a.k.a. Konnie), a touring nightclub musician, packed the little girl off to her maternal grandparents, with whom she lived for the next nine years.

Growing up in Bloomfield Hills, in the greater Detroit area, young Martha was bookish and, after discovering some play scripts in her grandparents’ attic, became fascinated with theatre. After high school, she studied drama at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and spent her summers in Canada, acting with the Sun Parlor Players in Leamington, Ont.

By then, she knew where she wanted to be. At 19, she’d made her first visit to Stratford, where she’d seen Hamlet performed by a magnetic young Canadian actor named Christopher Plummer. She remembered it as a revelatory experience. As she would later say, she wanted to live in a country that had such a festival.

After graduating from Carnegie Tech, she hitched a ride to Toronto and auditioned for its seminal Crest Theatre. She was hired in 1959 and took on landed immigrant status – much to Konnie’s dismay.

“That broke my mother’s heart,” recalled Ms. Henry, who eventually became a Canadian citizen in 1970. “She always thought after I got this Canadian thing out of my system, that I would go to New York.”

Instead, she went on to the newly created National Theatre School in Montreal at the urging of its founding director, Powys Thomas, with whom she’d worked at the Crest. In her second year, she finally achieved her Stratford goal when she was cast in The Tempest. It prompted NTS to grant her diploma early, making her the school’s first graduate.

At NTS, Martha Buhs had met fellow acting student Donnelly Rhodes – full name Donnelly Rhodes Henry – who had been raised by a single mother, the trailblazing Winnipeg journalist and playwright Ann Henry. Martha and Donnelly were married in 1962 and she took his surname as her stage name. Their marriage turned out to be brief – they parted amicably, Mr. Rhodes going on to a television career in the United States. But Ms. Henry also made another, more enduring connection at the school: Diana Leblanc, who would come to direct some of Ms. Henry’s finest performances, from her Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night to this year’s Three Tall Women, and become her closest friend.

Ms. Henry’s reputation as an actor grew throughout the 1960s, both at Stratford and at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, which lured many of the festival’s talents during the winter months. At Stratford, she was played a clear-eyed Cordelia to John Colicos’s King Lear in Michael Langham’s legendary 1964 production, and her wittily imperious Elmire delightfully exposed Mr. Hutt’s pious fraud in the 1968 Jean Gascon staging of Molière’s Tartuffe.

It was in the 1970s, however, with the arrival of Robin Phillips as Stratford’s artistic director, that Ms. Henry’s acting truly flowered. She shone with equal brightness alongside Mr. Phillips’s imported British stars, Maggie Smith and Brian Bedford, from the very start. She gave an astonishing, still talked-about performance, in Mr. Phillips’s inaugural 1975 season, as Isabella, the young nun coerced into breaking her vow of chastity to save her brother’s life, in Measure for Measure. The Globe and Mail’s theatre critic, Herbert Whittaker, praised her “enormous severity and integrity” in the role, calling it “an extraordinary study by an extraordinarily sensitive young actress” – a judgment shared unanimously by other critics and audiences.

Marti Maraden was among the fledgling Stratford actors watching Ms. Henry in awe during those years. “Just being onstage with her was a masterclass,” she said. Ms. Maraden played Irina to Ms. Henry’s Olga and Ms. Smith’s Masha in John Hirsch’s exquisite 1976 production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters and had the unenviable task of understudying her Isabella in Measure for Measure. “Martha told me once she wasn’t feeling too well and might not be able to go on,” Ms. Maraden recalled. “I just blanched in horror.” Happily for Ms. Maraden, Ms. Henry rallied.

The glorious years of Mr. Phillips’s Stratford reign ended in a shambles, when he resigned from exhaustion. Ms. Henry was one of a group of artists – dubbed the Gang of Four – charged by the festival’s board of governors with replacing him, but their collective directorship was then quickly overturned. Disgusted with their ill treatment, Ms. Henry departed the festival.

She eventually had a proper artistic directorship, running the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., from 1988 until 1995. It allowed her to expand into directing and to turn her attention to nurturing young talent – something she would do extensively a decade later, as the principal of Stratford’s Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training.

Actor and playwright Kate Hennig was among the up-and-comers who worked under Ms. Henry at the Grand, and she credited Ms. Henry with giving her confidence as an actor. Ms. Hennig said that, long afterwards, Ms. Henry continued to take an interest in her career. “She and Diana Leblanc came to just about everything I did. I couldn’t understand why this icon of Canadian theatre would want to come and see my plays,” she added with a laugh.“But she did, and she was always unbelievably generous.”

Ms. Henry’s break from Stratford also occasioned a move into film and television. She starred with Brent Carver in Mr. Phillips’s 1984 film of Timothy Findley’s The Wars, winning one of her many Genie Awards. She won again two years later, for her chilling performance as a homicidal housewife in the feminist thriller Dancing in the Dark. She also received the trophy for The Newcomers (1980), The Mustard Bath (1994) and for the screen adaptation of Long Day’s Journey into Night (1996).

Both the Stratford production and the film reunited her with Mr. Hutt, one of her favourite co-stars. Another was Mr. Bedford, who became a Stratford mainstay and reprised their halcyon days during the Robin Phillips era when he played Benedick to her Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. That 1998 production, directed by Richard Monette, toured to New York City Center and enjoyed critical acclaim.

Re-established at Stratford under Mr. Monette’s long tenure, Ms. Henry took on the modern canon, playing Linda Loman to Al Waxman’s Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1997) and Martha to Peter Donaldson’s George in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2001). Although she seldom appeared in new Canadian plays, she made an exception with Calgary playwright John Murrell. She created the role of frontier prostitute May Buchanan in Mr. Murrell’s 1982 drama Farther West, starred in his Chekhovian comedy New World in 1984, and acted in and directed his popular wartime play Waiting for the Parade. Decades later, she portrayed a crusty literary professor – a part written for her – in the 2013 Stratford premiere of Mr. Murrell’s Taking Shakespeare.

Ms. Henry liked to describe herself modestly as “an actor who directs,” but her work as a director yielded some powerful shows. In 2016, she directed a revival of All My Sons with a mixed-race cast that added a new layer of social relevance to Arthur Miller’s Second World War drama.

Ms. Peacock acted in that show as well as a superb Three Sisters in 2009 that revealed Ms. Henry’s directing at its penetrating peak. “We would spend all day in the theatre together, then we’d go to the bar and talk about the play, then first thing in the morning we’d send pages of e-mails to each other,” Ms. Peacock said. “It was just this deep dive into art and acting and Chekhov, in great detail, which was absolutely thrilling.”

Ms. Henry was married three times. Her second husband was actor Douglas Rain, a Stratford legend himself, although best known to the wider world as the voice of the computer HAL in the sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film released in 1968, the same year he and Ms. Henry were married. The two had a daughter, Emma.

After they were divorced, Ms. Henry married Rod Beattie in 1989. Mr. Beattie had been part of the Stratford company in the 1970s but came into his own the following decade as the star of the beloved one-man Wingfield Farm plays.

“I’ve never known anyone as naturally gifted,” Mr. Beattie said of Ms. Henry, adding with a rueful laugh that acting alongside her was “humiliating.” The couple were paired as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a less-than-dazzling 1999 Stratford production. Although they separated not long afterwards, they remained close. Mr. Beattie appeared in The Tempest in 2018 and the following year she directed him as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII – the last show she staged at Stratford.

Mr. Beattie said Ms. Henry set the bar high as a director but always believed in her actors. “She never accepted people’s shortcomings. She’d say, ‘You can do this! You can do this on your head!’ And you’d discover that you could,” he said. “She had an extraordinary ability to get people to do their best work.”

That belief extended to her teaching. Ms. Peacock, who taught with her at the Birmingham Conservatory, speaks of her fierce loyalty to her students. “She’d do anything for you.”

Ms. Henry was honoured many times during her career. Apart from her multiple acting awards for her stage, film and television work, she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1990, a Member of the Order of Ontario in 1994 and, in 1996, received a Governor-General’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also given seven honorary doctorates by universities in Canada and the United States.

Ms. Henry had been battling bone cancer for nearly two years but was determined to act in Three Tall Women. Mr. Beattie said that, toward the end of the run, her doctors told her if she took another course of radiation and chemotherapy, she might be able to prolong her life. She chose to keep doing the play instead and favour audiences with one more indelible Martha Henry performance.

Ms. Henry died peacefully at her Stratford home, attended by her family. She leaves her daughter, Emma Rain.

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