Stage Door News

Niagara-on-the-Lake: Beloved Shaw Festival actor Mary Haney has died

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

It didn't matter the role. It didn't matter the show. Whenever Mary Haney walked onto a Shaw Festival stage, all attention shifted to her.

During her 30 seasons and more than 60 productions with the Niagara-on-the-Lake company, Haney's versatility landed her in raucous comedies and tragic tearjerkers alike. From the hijinks of "Harvey" (2010) to a stirring Joan in a gala production of "Saint Joan" (1993), she was a favourite of both directors and audiences.

It's her work on and off the stage — helping develop the Shaw's young talent — that friends and co-stars are celebrating after the Welland-born actress died of lung cancer on Monday.

"We lost her very quickly, it just doesn't seem possible," said Shaw performer Corrinne Koslo, who starred with Haney in a handful of shows and watched her "nurture" many of the company's additions over the years.

"She took an interest in them and she supported them."

Koslo starred with Haney in the Shaw's sombre 2014 production of "Juno and the Paycock," and marvelled at her "great range" that often surprised people who only knew her from comedies.

Off-stage, she had an "acid humour that could cut through any situation."

"She was like that her whole life."

The sister of Trivial Pursuit co-founder Chris Haney, a young Mary Haney worked backstage at the Stratford Festival, where her mother Sheila was a performer. She joined the Shaw Festival in 1978, doing five shows in three seasons, including "Major Barbara" and "The Cherry Orchard."

Former Shaw artistic director Christopher Newton, who arrived in 1980, said Haney immediately caught his eye and made her a key piece of his acting ensemble.

"Mary was obviously an important member because she was such a good actor," he recalled. "It was so obvious she had that wonderful touch that really good actors have. She was an enchanting actor, she really was."

After a five-year absence, she returned to Shaw in 1986 to play Margaret Harris in "Cavalcade." She would spend 24 of the next 26 years at Shaw, and while comedies became her specialty, she's most remembered for director Neil Munro's lavish production of "Saint Joan." During the play's climactic inquisition scene, Haney's face filled the stage on large video screens, leaving literally no room for error with her performance.

"When her thinking changed, it was obvious to people," said Newton.

"There was a moment in 'The Cassilis Engagement,' which I did with her when she fell asleep when somebody was singing a rather boring ballad, and she started with the right eye beginning to twitch. That's a most wonderful thing for an actor who can draw an audience to watch her right eye."

Former Shaw actor Norm Browning recalled the "honest energy" Haney brought to the stage, which is why so many directors gravitated towards her.

"She was a force of nature, almost, for such a petite person," he said. "You couldn't figure out how such a little tiny thing was able to project that magnificence. She was magnetic … some of us are fortunate to get that naturally, and she was one of them.

"She didn't have to work at it, but she worked very hard at being truthful."

Haney also performed at the Stratford Festival and Tarragon Theatre, and was nominated for a Dora Maver Moore Award for best actress for Brian Friel's "Translations" at the Toronto Free Theatre.

Haney's final season at Shaw was 2016, starring in "A Woman of No Importance" and "Engaged."

In a joint statement released Tuesday morning, Shaw associate artistic director Kate Hennig, planning director Jeff Cummings and production stage designer Meredith Macdonald said Haney's body of work with the company is "unprecedented, and easily distinguishes her as one of the greatest Canadian actors of her generation."

"The control she demonstrated, over both tragedy and comedy, allowed her audiences to be out of control in both laughter and tears."

One of Browning's fondest memories was intermission during "Harvey," when they went to the back of the theatre for a tea and smoke and laughed until it was time to go back on stage.

"She was a joy to be with," he said. "I can't imagine anyone not liking her."

By John Law for www.stcatharinesstandard.ca.

Photo: Mary Haney as Joan of Arc in Saint Joan. © 1983 David Cooper.