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.

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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.

"We have so many young performers in this show who are gaga over working next to Sally, and during break she is over there with them asking them about their lives," Rothstein said. "She's great in building an ensemble."

Dowling echoed that thought, recalling an incident when Wingert spearheaded an effort to rally around an actor who needed help on a personal matter.

"Those are the kind of things that go way beyond what she can do on stage," Dowling said. "She knows the wider implications of being part of a theater community."

Wingert, now in her 50s, is one of the rare Minnesotans who make their living in the theater. She emerged as an actor in the early 1980s with Actors Theatre of St. Paul and caught the Guthrie's attention. A regular for 25 years at the big stage, she's also found fruitful work at Mixed Blood, Eye of the Storm and Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company, among many others.

"I look for parts that Sally would really relish playing — things that she wouldn't get to play at the Guthrie," said Hensley, citing a production of "Twelfth Night" in which Wingert played the Duke. "She enjoys the risks and dangers that are part of Ten Thousand Things."

With "Cabaret," Wingert has ventured onto the unfamiliar turf (for her) of musical theater. Rothstein said she has used her inexperience to form a camaraderie with the young cast, respecting their familiarity with the unique needs of performing and singing, and casting herself as something of a fish out of water.

Yet, there is the undeniable experience Wingert brings to the table in her process of finding a character and her willingness to be directed.

"She's an instinctive actor who relies on her emotional core," said Dowling. "If she doesn't find that instinctively, then your job is to help her think her way through. Roger Rees [director of "Primrose Path"] told me that he's never worked with someone who is so open to all the ideas in the room."

Family, work and women

Hensley, who often takes walks with Wingert, said they share stories about family and work — about their thankfulness that they can make theater their full-time job.

Hensley is an artistic director, so she enjoys a bit more stability. Wingert and other actors — even those who work as much as she does — live in fear that it will all dry up some day. That's what she's talking about when she says her career will retire her. There comes a time when there just aren't a lot of parts left.

Asked to what she attributes her good year, Wingert said, "Thanks to Joe Dowling for selecting a season that had women of my age in it.

"And not just me alone," she continued. "I worked with Michelle Barber and Candace Barrett [Birk] and Suzanne Warmanen. Often you're the token woman."

Wingert and her husband, Tim Danz, a St. Paul schoolteacher, recently became official empty nesters. She barks a quick "No" when asked if the adjustment was tough. After another of those big cackles, she talks about how much purpose in life she has found in her family — which includes two sons.

This sense of middle-class homeostasis runs throughout a conversation with Wingert. She's curious about holiday traditions, what you make for the big meal, when you get your tree. Hers is up but not trimmed and she despaired that her house needed to be cleaned for a photographer's visit later in the day.

Wingert entertains out-of-town acting gigs more eagerly now that the kids are grown and gone (elder son Truman still lives in the Twin Cities). Interestingly, she discusses such excursions in equal parts as theater opportunities and how they fit into her family life.

For example, she's pleased that in March she will act in "Henry V" at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Her younger son, Wyatt, is a video producer in the Windy City so she gets to spend springtime with her baby.

"It's easy enough to get out of town, and Tim can come and visit," she said.

Being selected Artist of the Year, Wingert said, was thrilling because it makes her family happy.

"It means so much that they would be proud of me," she said. "That means a lot, right? It's hugely important to me that they like my work. It's what their mom does."

When she played Polly Wyeth in "Other Desert Cities," Wingert dived into the submerged emotions of a woman deeply wounded by her children. Polly was glacially composed, erudite and proud at the play's outset. She was devastated at the conclusion.

"Having a family gives you a soft spot," Wingert said of the emotional vulnerability necessary for the role. "My sons were on my shoulders moving through that show. I had a deep fondness for that."

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299