Edna Cormick (Martha Henry) has devoted 20 years of her life to the rites of housekeepingsweeping, dusting, vacuuming, cooking and cleaning. “My days were a service, a mass,” she recalls at one point from a hospital bed. “Precise steps and motions, all in order.” Dancing in the Dark, the film adaptation of a novel by London, Ont., writer Joan Barfoot, dramatically traces the degeneration of Edna’s life from orderly housework to homicidal insanity. Portraying a middle-class housewife whose peaceful world turns into a nightmare, Henry gives one of the virtuoso performances of her distinguished career.
Dancing in the Dark also marks the feature-film screenwriting and directorial debut of Toronto’s Leon Marr. His sensitive script admirably depicts one woman’s world gone askew. Edna spends her days racing happily through a decathlon of chores and waiting eagerly for her husband, Harry (Neil Munro), a preoccupied salesman, to return from work. Like a giddy teenager, heart beating fast beneath the serene exterior, Edna hangs on to Harry’s every word. But when she discovers his infidelity, she loses her tenuous grip on reality and plunges into depression.
As Edna, Henry remains almost constantly before Vic Sarin’s probing camera, using subtle mood shifts to offer privileged access to Edna’s off-key psyche. Despite his character’s basic shallowness, Munro manages to avoid caricature, making Harry mildly sympathetic. Dancing in the Dark is flawed, particularly in its use of a selfconsciously literary voice-over. Still, in offering a complex portrait of a tragic woman, Marr has forged a rigorous and uncompromising movie.
Martha Henry detests housework. Confronted by scuffed floors and stained sinks, the awardwinning actress prefers to hire a cleaning woman. But to prepare for her widely acclaimed performance as the neurotic housewife Edna Cormick in Dancing in the Dark, Henry, 48, immersed herself in the minute details of homemaking. “She came to rehearsals and showed me a book with diagrams on how to clean windows,” said the
film’s director, Leon Marr. “Martha read it twice. She gives herself completely to a role.”
That thoroughness and Henry’s extraordinary talent have led to numer-
ous dramatic triumphs—in everything from Shakespearean comedy at Ontario’s Stratford Festival to the Canadian film The Wars, in which she played the genteel alcoholic, Mrs. Ross. For the past four weeks Henry has been dazzling Toronto audiences as Winnie in a Theatre Plus production of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play Happy Days. In Act 1, she is buried up to her waist in sand; by Act 2 the sand reaches her neck. Despite the strict limitations of the role, critics have described her performance as “majestic.”
Henry’s personal ambition and selfconfidence contrast starkly with Edna’s timorousness in Dancing. Still, the actress—a mixture of elegant reserve and thoughtful intensity—says that the role led her to important discoveries about herself. Speaking carefully in labyrinthine sentences, she told Maclean’s, “I have never been in a situation of being captured inside a house, God knows, and yet that dependency—and the dedication to making another person happy—is still in me and still in every woman I know.”
But Henry has seldom heeded such inclinations. Her dedication to her craft is so fierce that she admits to few interests outside of work. Raised by grandparents in Greenville, Mich., after her parents—a businessman and a lounge musician — separated, Henry discovered acting in her teens. The young actress began her long and fruitful association with Stratford in 1962. The critical acclaim earned there eventually won her the leading role in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s 1969 series Daniel Deronda, and in 1971 the title character in the Greek drama Antigone at New York’s Lincoln Center. She temporarily slowed her dizzying schedule 14 years ago, giving birth to her only child, Emma. Henry and her estranged husband, actor Douglas Rain, share custody.
Although Henry will accept promising film roles that come her way, she now plans to abandon the stage spotlight to concentrate on directing. “I suppose it has something to do with Edna and Dancing in the Dark,” she said, “with wanting some kind of control over my own life.” But she is also seeking a rest from what she calls the “depleting” process of developing a new theatrical character. In November she will direct Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., and at least two more directing assignments are arranged for next year. “She’s one of the best people in her profession anywhere,” says Urjo Kareda, artistic director of Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre, where Henry directed Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten in 1985. “She shaped her theatrical muscles on the most difficult repertoire, the classics. And she’s got what it takes to become a major director.”
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