Gracing the stage
by Jane Ledwell
I think the old saying that things improve when you get older, for me anyway, is true,” says actor Gracie Finley. Tempted back to the stage of the Watermark Theatre after an almost thirty-year leave from her acting career, this summer, in her fourth season back, she plays two major roles.
“I had been away from theatre a long time,” Gracie recalls. Beloved as the first Islander to earn the leading role of Anne of Green Gables—The Musical, it was because of this past role that a few years ago Duncan McIntosh (then-artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival and later founding artistic director of the Watermark Theatre) called Gracie at her home in England with nice things to say about her years-earlier performance.
“We became very good friends. A few years after, my husband and I bought a cottage at Stanley Bridge… And that was one of the first years of (what became the Watermark) Theatre.”
After two seasons of dropped hints, “I think it was the third year, Duncan took me to dinner and said, ‘So, Gracie, I’ve been looking at doing Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but set on PEI in the 1970s… What would you think of playing the lead?’
“Well, I love Chekhov…” Gracie says in a voice that conveys she was instantly, already convinced, “and I went home and thought, why not?” She returned to the stage that summer in the Chekhov adaptation The Shore Field, and as the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland.
Gracie says some friends cautioned, “Aren’t you afraid to come back? They saw it as a big risk… But I think it does you good to give yourself a healthy scare—and a challenge. I wasn’t frightened so much as excited.”
She says, “The best part about being here [at the Watermark Theatre] the last few years is that I’ve gotten to play some of the best roles in theatre for a woman my age,” she says, including Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter and the nurse in Romeo and Juliet.
“This year, I’ll be playing two of the most fulfilling roles,” she enthuses, as the medium Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and the faded-glory mother Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
Blithe Spirit she describes as “funny, improbable, ridiculous, and slightly camp, and her character is “a ‘jolly hockeysticks’ type of English lady—a stereotype, mind you—louder than loud, domineering, they know best about everyone.” The Glass Menagerie she describes as “Tennessee Williams at his finest,” dealing with “the human condition, relationships, family, struggle, certainly—and hope—and the terror of coping with life, a life that is full of disappointments.” Amanda’s character, she says, “is infused with a lot of humour—desperate humour, but poignant.”
Gracie is clearly in love with these characters, and her love does not end with them. She says, “I love this little theatre so much. It has its ups and downs, and I would love to see people give us a chance…
“This small space here,” Gracie says, gesturing to the Watermark stage, “tries to fulfill something I went to the theatre for—sharing an experience together on the stage, reaching a timelessness.” It’s a mission that goes beyond entertainment.
Gracie appreciates that her acting life has had multiple acts and scenes. “My best Anne was when I came back and played her in my thirties,” Gracie reflects. “I was too close in age the first time I played her. I think I felt sorry for her at times, and that was not Anne—she didn’t allow herself self-pity. In my thirties, I could step back and have such a better perspective on it.”
In this act of her life, Gracie says, “The hardest thing is that my husband travels back and forth from PEI to England, but when he’s here and family comes to visit, at six o’clock, they’re pouring a glass of wine, and I’m going to work.” But, she counters, “I feel very lucky to be back working again, finding that again.” There’s no need to write a final act yet.