Sad news: In Barbara Reese Edmonton theatre has lost a fine artist

Barbara Reese, painted in the 1970s by Margaret Mooney.

By Liz Nicholls,

With the death last month of Barbara Reese, Edmonton theatre has lost a fine artist, a generous collaborator and friend to artists, and an irreplaceable player in the drama of its history.

Her departure has left us a little unpinned from the days in which theatre here began to proliferate and boom — as a hinterland city 2,000 miles from Toronto gradually, but strikingly, took on the energy and colour palette of a bona fide theatre town.

Her embrace was wide and warm: Reese was onstage at every Edmonton theatre, from the largest playhouse, the Citadel (Uncle Vanya and The Trojan Women were among her credits), to the start-ups, like Workshop West and Theatre Network, that were springing up as alternatives in the late ‘70s. The Reese resumé includes Walterdale, the U of A’s Studio Theatre, and Theatre 3, the company out of whose ashes Phoenix Theatre arose. Fringe audiences enjoyed Reese’s performances too, in plays like Cut!, a witty theatre spoof by Lyle Victor Albert. “Cliché as it sounds her favourite show was always the one with which she was currently involved,” says her actor/ director/ teacher son Larry Reese, who appeared with his mother in more than a few films.

Reese was awarded the Sterling for outstanding contribution to Edmonton theatre in 1997. And by no means did she stop then. 

Her career, on stage and screen, first took off in the ‘70s in Edmonton, where she and her husband Will Reese, a science educator, poet, and notable storyteller in his later years, re-located from the U.S. and became Canadian citizens. Another invaluable grand dame of the theatre, Margaret Mooney, remembers working with Reese in the box office of the old Citadel, in the ex-Sally Ann citadel on 102 St. She recalls walking with her friend from the “new Citadel” to the Westin Hotel for lunch. “The doorman rushed over and said he’d seen Barbara in a play and raved and carried on! This was charming,” says Mooney, who painted her friend’s portrait in the 1970s.  

Reese taught in the Citadel’s “Drama Workshops.” The brochure for the 1971-71 season describes her as “a highly competent and popular returnee to Workshop staff … much in demand as a performer in radio and television.” Her experience, says the blurb, “includes acting and directing theatrical productions from East Pakistan to Edmonton.”

Barbara Reese

In 1979, the second season of Workshop West, a new company devoted to the Canadian repertoire, its founding father Gerry Potter remembers directing Reese in David French’s Of The Fields, Lately, the second of his seminal Mercer family saga (she appeared in the series’ first play Leaving Home at Walterdale). She played Mary, the mom character and Mercer family mediator in “the production that put the company in the public eye in Edmonton,” says Potter, not least “by later winning what was called the First Night Award for Outstanding Production…. Much of that attention was due to Barbara’s carefully crafted but very passionate performance.”

Stephen Heatley, an early artistic director of another of Edmonton’s new “small theatres” Theatre Network, and now a drama prof at UBC, remembers Reese in The Oldest Profession, the Paula Vogel play (in Northern Light Theatre’s upcoming season lineup) that was part of Network’s annual exchange with Saskatoon’s 25th Street Theatre in the ‘80s.

He himself directed Barbara in Raymond Storey’s thriller The Angel of Death in 1983. “She played the housekeeper and was truly wonderful.” He describes her as “such a generous performer and such a wonderful person to have in the cast. She really was like a mom to all of us. And she had a wicked sense of humour.”

She left her mark, literally, at the old Network, a very funky ex-Kingdom Hall near Northlands. “The space at Network was tiny and Daniel (designer Daniel Van Heyst) had designed a staircase that supposedly went to an attic; it was actually more like a clothes closet,” says Heatley. “Barbara’s character was to head up the stairs with a lantern and get suddenly yanked by ‘something’…. The stage walls were only made of tentest, and she launched up the stairs as directed, braced herself against the wall at the top and went right through. She was OK, but there was a patch on that wall up until the day we moved out of that space!”

Reese’s screen resumé includes such films as Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping, Road to Saddle River directed by Francis Damberger, and Jake’s Gate, a short film made and directed by Potter. By then Reese was in her ‘80s.  “We filmed some of that piece in mid-winter, outside,” recalls Potter. “Barbara cheerfully stood around in the 30-below weather and knee-deep in snow, waiting for us to get the shot right.” 

“She took the sketchily-written supporting role I wrote, and made it into a sensitive and moving performance. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because her work was always so committed and empathetic.” 

Anecdotes from Reese’s theatre colleagues invariably allude to the fun of working with her, her graciousness and sense of humour. Judy Unwin was a cast-mate in Dirty Work At The Crossroads, the first of Walterdale’s series of Klondike melodramas at the Strand Theatre in the ‘60s. Reese was the “femme fatale.” Says Unwin, “I played the ingenue, Purity Dean and I was a rookie, 19 maybe…. Barbara was so giving. She was so helpful, so generous to me. And she was funny! Very gracious. I’ll always think of her smile!”

Potter echoes the thought. “Barbara’s working attitude was always calm, supportive, and full of good humour and wit. A pleasure to work with for a director and for the entire team…. Her calm and focused demeanour in a rehearsal hall starkly contrasted with the fire she could bring to a performance.”

She has left her mark.

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