The Countess of Rossillion in All's Well That Ends Well is considered Shakespeare's best role for a mature actress. Generosity, nobility, intelligence and charm are the hallmarks of a part that combines a lively wit with delicate poetry. Director Michael Kahn has engaged the talents of Teresa Wright, star of stage and screen, to make her Shakespearean debut in this role.
"I have long admired Teresa as an actress who possesses great warmth and honesty," says Kahn. "When we did Glass Menagerie together, she ook the familiar role of Amanda Winfield and made it very much her own, finding the humor, the helplessness and the steeliness in the character. When I decided to do All's Well That Ends Well, I immediately thought of her for the Countess. I am absolutely thrilled that she has agreed."
"I would have been in even more plays if the ones I had been in hadn't run so long!" says Ms. Wright. Her last Broadway credit, Morning's at Seven, was a hit in which she performed for five years. It took her to London as the only American in the British production. Her Broadway debut was as understudy for Emily in Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Going on to a featured role in Life with Father in 1939, she was quickly discovered by Hollywood. Samuel Goldwyn personally plucked her off the Broadway boards and launched her on an illustrious film career during which she says she "was always preparing a journey back to the stage."
"In my first film contracts I agreed to take less money in order to retain the right to do plays," she explains, but the Silver Screen immediately took hold of her talent and claimed her as its own: her first three film performances received Oscar nominations. Her screen debut as the daughter of Bette Davis' Regina in William Wyler's film of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes captured the attention of critics and the Motion Picture Academy in 1941. In 1942 she scored twice. Her "lovely, gracious quality" ( The New York Times, 1942) as the wife of Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees earned her a nomination for Best Actress.
It was her appearance that same year in the historic Mrs. Miniver that won her the coveted Oscar and established her career as a highly respected, serious actress in an age when starlets and glamour queens reigned supreme. Her performance in Mrs. Miniver continues to enthrall audiences, as evidenced in a recent showing of the classic film to a packed house at the Library of Congress, where it was reported that "she had the audience in tears." The announcement that she would be appearing in the Shakespeare Theatre's upcoming production of All's Well That Ends Well was greeted with applause.
Ms. Wright went on to work with Alfred Hitchcock in Shadow of a Doubt and was singled out for her performance in The Best Years of Our Lives , among other memorable movies of the era. While the demands of stardom, marriage and motherhood had to be met, Ms. Wright knew she would be making her way back to the stage. Her screen life matched her again with Gary Cooper as well as Robert Mitchum and Ray Milland, but finally she headed east to reclaim her place in Broadway history in William Inge's acclaimed 1957 play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
Ms. Wright's unerring ability to choose worthy material is displayed in her ensuing credits, which include Mary, Mary, Tchin Tchin, and I Never Sang for My Father, all of which enjoyed long-term success. She starred in revivals of Death of a Salesman with George C. Scott, Ah, Wilderness with Geraldine Fitzgerald, The Master Builder with Richard Kiley and Jane Alexander (seen at the Kennedy Center), and The Effect of Gamma Rays in Man-in-the Moon-Marigolds.
Her achievements on television include portrayals of Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker and the title role in The Margaret Bourke-White Story, both of which won Emmy Award nominations. One of her favorite small-screen appearances was for PBS in Ring Lardner Jr.'s Golden Honeymoon for the American Short Story Series. Her performance in Wonderworks' The Fig Tree was recently aired, also on PBS.
In 1985 Ms. Wright joined Melissa Gilbert and Tom Hulce to play The Mother in Kahn's production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie for The Chautauqua Theatre Company. "I didn't want to take on such an exquisite role without lots and lots of-preparation," she remembers. "I thought I wanted months and months to prepare. Of course, that wasn't possible, but Michael has a way of reassuring you. It was a great joy to work with him."
As for the role of the Countess, her first response was deeply instinctive. Despite a desire to join her family in California—she has a son and daughter and two grandchildren—after a hettic summer filming in Dallas, she was captivated by the role, and particularly by Shakespeare: "It's a great wonder that one person could know so much. His knowledge is superhuman. He knows a mother's feelings, there's no gender gap; he's inside everybody's mind and heart, more than any other playwright, he gets inside the character—there's so much more revealed than any modern, stream-of-conscious writer can convey psychologically. The discovery for yourself is a wonderful journey ... It's been very exciting working with Liz Smith (the Shakespeare Theatre's Voice Coach with whom she's been meeting in New York). It's a great trip!"
The voyage metaphor is obviously close to Ms. Wright's heart, as this reputedly very private actress talks of journeys in a life of national tours, international fame and bi-coastal success. The allusion is appropriate since travel is a significant theme in Shakespeare's All's Well. The action moves from France to Italy and, back again as restless, questing youth seeks quick fulfillment in love and military adventure. Even while the Countess stays at home in Rossillion, her wry wisdom does not preclude her zestful participation in the love story. She vigorously dispatches letters and messenges as Bertram careens on the path toward self-discovery. As Ms. Wright describes her exploration of Shakespeare, "It's the finding out for yourself which is very, very exciting!"