No one would call actor Sally Wingert chicken, but she is something of a Coward.
Currently killing it in "Blithe Spirit" at the Guthrie Theater, Wingert was also in the Guthrie's 1997 production of the Noël Coward comedy — and she has been in two productions of the British playwright's "Private Lives," as well.
Twenty years ago in "Blithe Spirit," Wingert was Ruth, who faces her husband's deceased wife when she is summoned during a dinner-party seance. This time, she is the medium in charge of the seance, Madame Arcati.
The role caps a great year for Wingert, who has had meaty leads in "Six Degrees of Separation" at Theater Latté Da, "Wit" at Artistry and "Native Gardens" at the Guthrie and Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and made her directing debut with Minnesota Jewish Theatre's "The Whipping Man." The good news for Wingert fans? Her 2018 is even busier.
Q: Was the 1997 production still in your mind when you went into rehearsals?
A: What I always, always remembered was the brilliance of Rosaleen Linehan. She was Madame Arcati in that production, and she was brilliant in it. More than a little, I try to summon her.
Q: How so?
A: She's happily working in Dublin right now, doing a play, at 81. Role-model central is Rosaleen Linehan. Oh, my gosh, if I could only begin to have the kind of career she has sustained. So I consider this an homage to her. It isn't the same Arcati, but she had a generosity of spirit that I hope comes across in my Madame Arcati.
Q: So the previous experience didn't inform this one?
A: I don't hold onto characters. I have to let them go.
Q: Knowing the play so well, did you come into rehearsals knowing what your Arcati would be like?
A: I know the story, certainly, and I feel like I have a handle on my place in it and I have feelings about the characters. But I feel like this one is really in my body, versus in my head. She's just there.
Q: It's clear you're moved by her.
A: I love her. Don't you love her? This is really for the audience to decide, but I think she's adorable in her oddness, in her beliefs. When she says, at the end of this whole experience, "Golly, what a night! I'm ready to drop in my tracks," I just love that. That is a curious soul, moving through her life.
Q: There is so much detail in this "Blithe Spirit," little bits of funny business everywhere on stage. It seems like it must have been an idea-packed rehearsal room.
A: [Director] David Ivers is a genius and he makes the room fun. So is Quinn Mattfeld, who plays [Ruth's husband] Charles. He is fan-fricking-tastic. Endlessly inventive, and he could be because there was a looseness to the rehearsals. David is an actor himself, aside from being a director, and he made this place where you could bring stuff and know it would not be dismissed.
Q: Why do you think Madame Arcati is so invested in communicating with the spirit world?
A: Honestly, I think she has a gift. There are reputable psychics.
Q: Sounds like there's a story there.
A: I was seven months pregnant with [younger son] Wyatt and doing "A Christmas Carol." I was playing both one of the Fezziwig daughters and Mrs. Fred, who in that permutation was pregnant. One of the children's mothers was a psychic. I was sitting next to her on this bench before a Fezzi entrance, and I said, "Tell me about this baby. Can you tell me anything?"
She looked at me and said, "That baby wants chocolate right now," and then she said, "He is ready to come earlier," and "You need to give that baby some room."
So my next OB-GYN appointment, I said, "This woman who's a psychic said my baby is ready to come early. Should we just take a look?" I was dilated to 2 and the baby was breech.
The doctor said, "You need to rest, to expand your mind, visually, and your uterus, because you need to give that baby some room to turn."
"Some room." She said that. I had prayed for a girl because I had a boy, Truman, so when [the psychic] said "he," I turned to her and said, "He?" She said, "Oh, I always say 'he.' " Well, she doesn't, really. She knew he was a boy. She knew he was breech. And Wyatt did arrive early. He was a week and a half early — brilliant, because I only had three weeks between his birth and my next gig — and there was space for him to get his head down.
Would I have attended to this so quickly if a psychic hadn't said those things? I don't know anything about psychics. But Madame Arcati does. And it's a gift.
Q: You have quite a run of things booked. As a freelance actor, that must feel great.
A: I have this, and then "Indecent" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" [Wingert will play the role Katharine Hepburn plays in the film version] at the Guthrie. And then I'm going to do "Underneath the Lintel" [for Latté Da], which is just the most beautiful play. And then I'm doing " 'night, Mother" with Sara Marsh. So I'm kind of booked through early September.
You'd think, "Hey, hey, hey. Relax." [Here, Wingert mimes playing maracas and dancing.] But it's not just because I want to act. This is how I make my living, and that doesn't get any easier.
I have maybe more anxiety now than I used to. It doesn't lessen. And I am lucky as hell. I'm really lucky. But I, honest to God, feel like it could all end next year. You could ask Jennifer [Liestman, resident casting director]. When she offers me something, I scream because I'm so excited.
Q: Well, it sure seems like you're having a great time in "Blithe Spirit."
A: Oh, we are. It should be illegal. Honestly, it is a little bit illegal.