Irene Worth, American stage and screen actress, Died at 85


Irene Worth died on March 9, 2002 at the age of 85; she was an American stage and screen actress who became one of the leading stars of the English and American theatre.

Born in Fairbury, Nebraska to a Mennonite family on June 23, 1916, her parents, Agnes Thiessen and Henry Abrams, were educators.

They moved from Nebraska to California in 1920.

In 1953, she joined the fledgling Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario for its inaugural season.

There she was the principal leading lady, performing under an enormous tent with Alec Guinness in All’s Well That Ends Well and Richard III.

“Binkie” Beaumont brought her back to London in N. C. Hunter’s “Chekhovian” drama, A Day by the Sea, with a cast that included John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

She joined the Midland Theatre Company in Coventry for Ugo Betti’s The Queen and the Rebels.

Her transformation from “a rejected slut cowering at her lover’s feet into a redemption of regal poise” ensured a transfer to London, where Kenneth Tynan wrote of her technique: “It is grandiose, heartfelt, marvellously controlled, clear as crystal and totally unmoving.”

She returned to the RSC at the Aldwych to repeat her role.

She worked with Peter Brook in Paris and also toured Iran with Orghast, Brook’s attempt to develop an international theatre language.

She joined the National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1968 to play Jocasta in Peter Brook’s production of Seneca’s Oedipus, again opposite Gielgud.

She was proud to have been in Noël Coward’s last play Suite in Three Keys, in which he himself made his last appearance on stage.

In 1974 she appeared in three thematically-linked plays at the Greenwich Theatre directed by Jonathan Miller under the umbrella title of Family Romances and using the same actors for each play.

Worth took the roles of Gertrude in Hamlet, Madame Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull, and Mrs Alving in Ibsen’s Ghosts.

In 1965 Worth premiered the lead role in Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice in New York City; she won her first Tony award for that performance.

She later appeared internationally in Hedda Gabler (1970), The Seagull (1973), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1975), receiving a second Tony award for her performance in the latter production.

Her best-known role of later years was that of the domineering Grandma Kurnitz in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers (1991).

She was awarded another Tony for this role, which she repeated in the film adaptation two years later.

After suffering a stroke in 1999, Worth recovered and returned to the stage; her final role was in the two-character play I Take Your Hand in Mine (2001).

Upon her death, the Guardian newspaper declared her “an actor of a quality that no self-respecting playgoer would voluntarily miss, in anything.”

She was revered. At the National in her 70s, when she felt dissatisfied with her delivery, she stopped, apologised, and said she would start again.

Her stage authority permitted it.

She went on acting into her 80s with that authority and intellectual assurance that had climaxed as Volumnia, to Ian McKellen’s Coriolanus (National, 1984), and as Hedda Gabler, at Stratford, Ontario (1970).