Actress Sally Wingert a Twin Cities favorite

Arsenic and Old Lace
Sally Wingert and Kristine Nielsen as the sweetly murderous aunts in the Guthrie Theater's production of "Arsenic and Old Lace."
Image courtesy Guthrie Theater (c) Michal Daniel

Many theater-goers heading to the Guthrie Theater's production of the classic comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" are there to see Twin Cities favorite Sally Wingert.

She has had quite a year, also appearing on Broadway and London's West End. And Wingert is gearing up for even more.

St. Paul Pioneer Press theater critic Dominic Papatola said there's a simple truth about Wingert.

"There are very few actors in town if their name is on the marquee or their name is in the program that in itself will get people in the theater," he said. "Sally's is one of those names."

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Off stage, Wingert describes "Arsenic and Old Lace," as a comedy constructed like a Swiss watch.

"It's just written with extreme precision, so you need to play the music of the script," she said.

Sally Wingert
Sally Wingert has appeared in more than 75 Guthrie shows over the years.
Image courtesy of the Guthrie Theater (photo Ann Marsden)

And play it she does, as only someone who has 35 years experience as an actor can. Wingert has appeared in more than 75 Guthrie shows, and it's almost easier to list the Minnesota theater companies with which she hasn't appeared. There's been TV, and movies too, including "North Country," "The Straight Story" and "Fargo."

Yet, when you ask different people why Wingert is such a success, you get different answers.

"She always pours herself completely into a character," said Papatola. "And yet you can always see Sally there. And I think that combination is kind of alchemic."

But Michelle Hensley, the executive director of Ten Thousand Things a friend of Wingert sees it as sensory.

"Her peripheral vision and hearing and sense are always full on, like her antennae are always out. And I think that makes her a very receptive, responsive actress," Hensley said.

Over at Mixed Blood Theater, Executive Director Jack Reuler said he first met Wingert in 1977. It was during his only acting role ever, in a play called "Steambath" at Theater in the Round.

Kris Nelson and Sally Wingert in Ten Thousand Things 2011 production of "Doubt: a parable"
Image courtesy of Ten Thousand Things

"I was a Puerto Rican steambath attendant who was God, and Sally jumped out of a locked trunk," he recalled.

Yet from such humble beginnings arose a longtime collaboration.

"Sally has great opinions, is unafraid to share them, but will work with anybody as an active listener, which makes her such a good friend and colleague," Reuler said.

Unlike many modern actors, Wingert wasn't a theater major in college. She's honed her skills over the years doing every kind of theater she can. Even for a plot driven play like "Arsenic and Old Lace," Wingert puts her character under the microscope.

"If you aren't deeply, at least attempting to be, deeply honest and real with these characters, then the audience isn't going to care so much and they're not going to laugh so hard," she said.

Wingert described Twin Cities audiences as having a high theater IQ, which adds to the challenge of every role. She said she really enjoyed her trip to London and New York to appear with Mark Rylance in the hit show "La Bete."

Happy Days
Sally Wingert in the Guthrie Theater's production of Samuel Beckett's 'Happy Days.'
Image courtesy Guthrie Theater (c) Michal Daniel

"It's been fabulous," she said. "Sally's excellent adventure!"

But she was also excited to return to Minneapolis to take one of the lead roles in "Doubt," which she performed in prisons and homeless shelters with Ten Thousand Things. She then did what she describes as a 180 into "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Next up is "Full Gallop" a one-woman play about fashion icon Diana Vreeland, which she'll do for just six performances in June in a pop-up theater in a boutique in St. Paul.

"Every time I get into the middle of that, I think, 'Why did I say yes to this? It's too much work!'" she laughed. "But it's going to be fun."

After that, she has a huge list of other work she'd like to do: more Chekov, Shaw, Tennessee Williams, more experimental theater, even take up the violin, which she studied as a girl.

There's also the question of Shakespeare. Michelle Hensley said she's aware Wingert wants to do more, but the Bard of Avon wrote few good roles for women. Hensley said maybe someone will cast Wingert in one of the leading male roles.

"Yeah," she said. "I hope that one of those opportunities comes along really soon. Wink, wink! More to come."

So Lear? Macbeth? Hamlet? Whatever, it seems Wingert will continue to surprise and delight audiences.