Living with characters: Sally Wingert, 2013 Artist of Year

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 29, 2013 - 7:56 AM

Among the best-known actors in the Twin Cities, Sally Wingert enjoyed a great year on stage, playing five very different women.

Somehow, the subject of retirement had come up in our conversation, and Sally Wingert burst into a big throaty cackle.

“How the hell can I retire?” she asked as she laughed. “My career will retire me fast enough.”

Wingert took a sip of coffee and caught her second wind.

“That’s the miracle of these last 15 months, all this deeply satisfying work that I am getting in middle age,” she said. “I prepare for the worst, and I’m delighted by the best.”

By that standard, the Star Tribune’s Artist of the Year should be overjoyed by a 2013 in which she was constantly working — and at the top of her game.

MOBILE: More Artist of the Year coverage.

Wingert has been a fixture on Twin Cities stages for so many years (don’t ask how many) that it seems a bit odd to single out this one. The evidence, though, has piled up.

In “Other Desert Cities,” she played the domineering matron of a well-connected Reagan Republican family. Wingert doesn’t pick favorites (“It’s like choosing a favorite child”), but she was clearly satisfied with her work as a character whose icy emotional stability is shattered. In “Tribes,” she played a different kind of mother, one struggling for space and expression as she holds together a fractious family. “Primrose Path” and “Pride and Prejudice” were iconic extremes — the daffy harridan and the severe noblewoman.

“She has that rare ability to cover all the bases,” said Guthrie director Joe Dowling.

At year’s end, Wingert slipped away from the Guthrie stages to inhabit an everywoman at the center of “The Receptionist” for Dark & Stormy Productions. Rather than playing for 650 or 1,100 people each night, she worked crowds of 60 — and had a gas performing a role scaled to very human proportions.

And she wanted it noted for the record that she understudied two roles in the Guthrie’s “A Christmas Carol” and is rehearsing the role of Fräulein Schneider in “Cabaret,” which opens Jan. 18.

“It takes a lot of head space for these characters to live with me,” she said.

Interested in what makes people tick

In order to get Sally Wingert to talk about her theater work, you must first go through, in order: your family, your work, your anxieties, her family, her anxieties and the latest theater gossip — all off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush.

Michelle Hensley, artistic director of Ten Thousand Things, chuckles knowingly when asked about Wingert’s habit of turning an interview on its head. It’s not a matter of deflecting attention but an honest inquiry.

“She’s curious about how human beings and relationships work,” Hensley said. “That fierce curiosity is really an asset as an actor.”

Peter Rothstein, who directed Wingert in “Other Desert Cities,” said she has the capacity in conversation “to make you feel like you’re the most important person on the planet.”

Rothstein, who is directing “Cabaret,” said this trait in Wingert brings a generous presence in rehearsal.

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  • Sally Wingert, the Star Tribune 2013 Artist of the Year.

  • “The Primrose Path”: At the Guthrie, Sally Wingert was the daffy and comic Maria in this adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s novel “Home of the Gentry.”

  • “Other Desert Cities”: Wingert played Polly Wyeth, the ferocious matriarch of a California Republican family, seen here scolding her son Trip (Christian Conn).

  • “Tribes”: As Beth, the mother of three children — the youngest of whom is deaf — Wingert (in kimono) tried to keep peace in her family, and still find room to express her own artistic sensibilities.

  • “The Receptionist”: Wingert, shown with Sara Marsh, is currently playing the title role in this tiny production, running through Jan. 4 at the Traffic Zone Center. She’s “had a gas” portraying Beverly, a woman whose simple life gets caught in ominous circumstances.

  • “Pride and Prejudice”: Wingert wore the imperious glare (and imposing costume) of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, aunt of Mr. Darcy.

  • About the artist

    Background: Born in Duluth. High school in Robbinsdale. Attended University of Minnesota.

    Family: Married to actor-turned-schoolteacher Tim Danz. Sons Truman, 26, and Wyatt, 23.

    Early success: Wingert calls her years with Actors Theatre of St. Paul (1982-85) “my graduate degree in theater.”

    At Guthrie: Became a company member under Garland Wright in 1986. Has since performed in dozens of productions.

    Elsewhere: She has frequented Mixed Blood, Eye of the Storm, Ten Thousand Things, Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. Plus, film and TV work. Acted in “La Bête” with Mark Rylance in London and on Broadway in 2010.

    Quote: “It’s a puzzle how you keep yourself employed. I never take it for granted.”

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