Ann Whitney, an 85-year-old Bloomington, Illinois native, knew she was meant to be on stage when she was cast as the Wicked Queen in an eighth-grade production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“I can actually remember sitting in this big chair, with big wide arms … and I had a long dress and I wore pearls and I had a crown and I was mean to everybody,” Whitney says. “And I thought that was the greatest thing ever, that I could be mean and terrible to people and it was all part of a play, and it was not for real.”
Whitney entered the theater department at Northwestern University after high school, but after consulting with a beloved teacher, she decided theater wasn’t her path just yet. She wanted to get married and have children, and wasn’t particularly interested in moving to New York. At the time, Chicago had few sit-down theaters, and the city was mostly visited by traveling troupes. She changed her major to speech therapy.
Shortly after school, Whitney did get married — to her husband Bill. A Navy man, Whitney’s husband’s assignments kept them from settling in one place. They eventually started to grow a family, and Whitney forgot about her previous theater ambitions. It wasn’t until a move to Evanston, with a child on the way, that her passion was reawakened.
“Our church had decided to do a play; I just had my second baby and … my husband was cast in it. And I was sitting at home with this little baby, kind of being a little jealous. I thought to myself what is he doing over there? This is what I’ve always wanted to do. And all of a sudden he’s the one that’s getting the big break with the church theater group!” Whitney says with a laugh. “And shortly after that, because the play they did was very successful, they formed a little community theater at the church and I became involved in that.”
From then on, Whitney remained committed to community theater. She says Evanston is truly her home, and she’s excited by the growth of the theater scene in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.
“It’s expanded by leaps and bounds, and a lot of it is because graduates from theater schools want to stay together as an ensemble and they start their own theater!” Whitney says excitedly. “And they’ll go into an empty storefront and, gosh darn it, turn it into something. Not all of it is great, you know … but a lot of it really is. And then they move onto a bigger theater.”
Whitney extols the multitude of opportunities Chicago presents for young theater enthusiasts, from working with directors and choreographers to performing in a variety of shows, such as musicals and mysteries, to taking stages big and small.
“I feel so lucky to have been here, you know? You never know what your life would be like if you had lived somewhere else but I’m just glad I live here,” Whitney says.
Whitney is currently playing the role of JoAnne in Rebecca Gilman’s production “Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976,” now at Goodman Theatre. The play, set in a small Wisconsin town, highlights the moral dilemmas faced by families and friends when a corporation takes over a local cheese manufacturer that employs a majority of the town’s residents. Whitney describes her character as interesting, tough and cynical, yet loyal and intelligent.
“I am a character who always thinks she’s right, and cannot understand it when people don’t take her advice, so I have some fun scenes,” Whitney says. “It’s a lovely, juicy part. And I’m so grateful that I’m doing this.”
The role, Whitney says, was not originally intended for her. Another actress had been assigned the part, but the arrangement fell through. It wasn’t until a week before rehearsals that Whitney joined the cast as JoAnne.
“I don’t mean to sound spooky, but it felt kind of like the answer to a lot of my questions about what should I be doing … suddenly this happened and I felt something was saying to me this is what you should be doing.”
Bill, Whitney’s husband of nearly 60 years, passed away about a year ago. Whitney figured her time in theater was up, unable to fathom producing the energy to engage in a role. She credits her confidence to carry on to Goodman Artistic Director Robert Falls, saying “He was exactly what I needed — supportive and funny.” She also relies on comfort from her family, on-stage and off-stage. The entire experience has been a healing process.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am that I’ve had all of these experiences and have worked with all of these incredible people. The cast of this show … has bonded together like a real family,” Whitney says. “It’s so wonderful to have these people that love you, and would do anything for you; if you get stuck on stage, they’re gonna be there for ya. And you’re gonna be there for them. And it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.”
“Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976″ is at Goodman Theatre until June 19. For more information and tickets, visit Goodman’s website.
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