Teresa Wright: Actress’ Broadway comeback in ‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’
(See previous post: “Mother Roles: From Marlon Brando to Hollywood Moms.”) In 1952, Teresa Wright was featured alongside fellow Hollywood actor Kent Smith (Cat People) in a theater production of Mary Drayton’s Mormon-themed comedy Salt of the Earth in New Haven, Connecticut. From then on, she would periodically act on stage in various North American cities.
As her movie career was about to come to an abrupt halt, in 1957 Wright made her Broadway comeback, starring as Cora Flood opposite Pat Hingle’s Rubin Flood in the family drama The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, written by William Inge and directed by Elia Kazan. The play became Inge’s latest success – his fourth that decade, following Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; and Bus Stop.
“In the three chief parts,” wrote the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson, “Teresa Wright as the wife, Pat Hingle as the husband and Eileen Heckart as his sister-in-law are superb. Miss Wright gentle, soft and wondering; Mr. Hingle boisterous with a whining note of worry in his voice; Miss Heckart raucous, overeager and panicky inside – they preserve the homespun quality of the play and also disclose the darkness at the top of the stairs of their lives.”
The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Elia Kazan, Pat Hingle, and Eileen Heckart all received Tony nominations. Wright, however, was bypassed.
A Tony nod (or win) would surely have been a solid professional boost, but the long run of Inge’s play (468 performances) should have sufficed to turn her – especially after 15 years as a movie star – into a major stage name. Yet her Broadway career failed to take off at that time.
Marriage to playwright Robert Anderson
Teresa Wright married playwright and screenwriter Robert Anderson in 1959, the year The Dark at the Top of the Stairs closed on Broadway. Anderson, best known for the 1953 Deborah Kerr-John Kerr stage hit Tea and Sympathy, had also written the screenplay for Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959), one of the best-received movies of the year.
As for the newlywed wife, the marriage would be followed by a career slowdown. The inevitable film version of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs starred not Teresa Wright, but Dorothy McGuire (with Robert Preston in Pat Hingle’s stage role). Delbert Mann directed the generally well-regarded 1960 release.
Television appearances also became scarce. Most notable among these was the Breck Sunday Showcase episode “The Margaret Bourke-White Story” (1960), which earned Wright her second Emmy nomination, this time for her portrayal of the Life Magazine photographer who develops Parkinson’s disease.
In 1962, she was back on stage, touring as Mary McKellaway in Jean Kerr’s Mary, Mary, a major Broadway success for Barbara Bel Geddes in the early ’60s.
From mid-decade onwards, Wright would continue to act steadily – almost invariably on television and the stage – slackening her pace only after turning 70 in 1988.
Final Broadway roles
Teresa Wright’s latter-day Broadway gigs were few, but prestigious:
- Husband Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father (1968), co-starring Alan Webb, Hal Holbrook, and veteran Lillian Gish.
Estelle Parsons was cast in Wright’s role (Alice; Webb’s daughter and Holbrook’s sister) in Gilbert Cates’ 1970 film version adapted by Anderson himself, and starring eventual Oscar nominees Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman.
Wright played Willy’s wife, Linda Loman, while their two sons, Biff and Happy, were played by James Farentino and Harvey Keitel. The New York Times’ Walter Kerr effused:
“And, at the same time Mr. Scott is alternately drawing his teeth across his lower lip and lifting the corners of his mouth in an expansive but mirthless smile … Teresa Wright, as his wife, is creating the perfect complement to his instability. Face severely reposed, voice rarely raised, she is both patient and rock-hard in her steadfast coping with home truths. She is not deceived, not even by love. But she does love.”
- A revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! (1975), as the stern Aunt Lily.
The ensemble cast included Geraldine Fitzgerald, Linda Hunt, Swoosie Kurtz, John Braden, William Swetland, and Paul Rudd (no connection to the star of The Object of My Affection and the upcoming Ant-Man).
- The highly popular (564 performances) Tony Award-winning revival of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven (1980), with Wright playing opposite fellow veterans Nancy Marchand, Maureen O’Sullivan, Elizabeth Wilson, and Gary Merrill.
Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times:
“…Miss Wright alternates between jumping up and down like a primly behaved yo-yo at the merest site of visitors and tucking her head against her shoulder – wise as a reflective hen – as she schemes to get her husband [Maurice Copeland] for herself [and far away from the clutches of one her sisters, played by Elizabeth Wilson].”
Morning’s at Seven won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. It would be broadcast on the cable channel Showtime in 1982 (with Kate Reid replacing Marchand).
- Teresa Wright’s final Broadway appearance was in another revival of a Paul Osborn play: the Tony-nominated On Borrowed Time (1991).
Now in her early 70s, she was cast as “Granny” – once again acting under the direction of and playing opposite George C. Scott. Nathan Lane was also featured in the revival.
Solid notices notwithstanding, Teresa Wright never received a Tony nomination. Yet, despite her years in Hollywood, acting on stage seemingly remained her main passion.
“I wouldn’t pursue film, and I didn’t back [at the beginning of my career],” Wright told aspiring actors at a USC class in 1982, while in Los Angeles appearing in Morning’s at Seven at the Ahmanson Theater. “I’d use every angle to try to get into a repertory company.”
Along with Kitty Carlisle, Gordon Davidson, Hal Holbrook, Robert Morse, Jerry Orbach, Frances Sternhagen, and Tom Stoppard, Teresa Wright was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1999.
TV work in the late 20th century
Among Teresa Wright’s numerous latter-day television appearances were:
- Jerry Jameson’s thriller The Elevator (1974), in which she gets stuck in same with the likes of Craig Stevens (as her husband), James Farentino, Carol Lynley, Roddy McDowall, and her The Best Years of Our Lives mother, Myrna Loy.
- Noel Black’s The Golden Honeymoon (1980), with Wright and fellow veteran James Whitmore as a couple hitting the road to Florida to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. (She was 62 at the time; Whitmore was 59.)
- Fred Barzyk’s No Room for Opal (1993), with Wright as the room-less title character. Tyne Daly, Claire Danes, Moses Gunn, and Daniel J. Travanti co-starred.
Teresa Wright also had guest roles in about 10 TV shows from 1970-1996, ranging from Hawkins and the soap opera Guiding Light to, inevitably, Murder, She Wrote and The Love Boat.
In the 1988-89 season, she received her third and final Emmy nomination for her guest performance in the Dolphin Cove episode “The Elders.”
“I get an awful lot of scripts for television stuff,” she told the Los Angeles Times shortly after The Rainmaker came out in late 1997, “and after you’ve played one woman in an old-age home you don’t want to do another. There’s no depth in those roles. It’s really not very rewarding.”
As it turned out, the 1996 Picket Fences episode “My Romance” marked Teresa Wright’s final television appearance.
Teresa Wright’s post-The Restless Years movie appearances were few and far between:
- David Miller’s Hail, Hero! (1969), in which she is outstanding as Michael Douglas’ adulterous mother.
- Richard Brooks’ The Happy Ending (1969), wasted in a minor role as, once again, Jean Simmons’ mother.
- James Ivory’s poorly received Roseland (1977), set (and filmed) in New York City’s titular dance palace. Wright’s performance as a recently widowed sixty-ish woman inspired Pauline Kael to write, “You can’t relax when she’s on the screen – she’s reaching out, grabbing you, pelting you with her tender frailty.”
- Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time (1980), supporting a post-Superman Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. A critical and box office disappointment upon its release, the romantic fantasy – which, like Enchantment, features a piece of jewelry as a “time-traveling” motif – has evolved into a cult classic.
- Leonard Nimoy’s The Good Mother (1988), starring Diane Keaton. Also in the cast were a pre-Schindler’s List, pre-Taken Liam Neeson, and veteran Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth) as Wright’s husband.
- The Touchstone Films short The Red Coat (1993). Directed by (mostly) screenwriter Robin Swicord (Little Women, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), and also featuring Annabeth Gish and Jeff Yagher, the short premiered at the Aspen Film Festival.
- Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker (1997).
A dreadful – but remarkably successful – film version of John Grisham’s populist bestseller, The Rainmaker starred Matt Damon as a rookie attorney, who, through sheer determination and with man-of-steel-hard integrity, manages to defeat powerful, corrupt forces.
“I just saw Matt Damon in [Gus Van Sant’s] Good Will Hunting and I must say there are some scenes where the acting is just marvelous,” Wright told the Los Angeles Times. “Matt was just a rock to work with … so sure, and so there for you all the time. For a young man, that’s really quite unusual.”
She added that working with Francis Ford Coppola “was a really unique experience, very, very happy – a great learning experience. He does improvisation and I’d never done that before. I know a lot of young actors have, but it was new to me.”
Improvisation or no, as Miss Birdie – Damon’s gently quirky, Southern-accented landlady – the 79-year-old Wright delivered an old-fashioned, highly theatrical performance.
The Rainmaker turned out to be Teresa Wright’s final appearance in front of the camera.
“Teresa Wright: From Broadway Triumph to Somewhere in Time and The Rainmaker” follow-up post: “Teresa Wright was one of oldest Oscar winners.”
‘Teresa Wright Broadway Triumph’ notes: William Inge plays into movies
 Come Back, Little Sheba; Picnic; and Bus Stop were all made into movies – of varying degrees of fidelity to the original source. Among the stage principals, only Tony winner Shirley Booth succeeded in reprising her role on film, ultimately taking home a Best Actress Academy Award as well.
- Come Back, Little Sheba.
Stage (1950): Shirley Booth. Sidney Blackmer. Joan Lorring.
Film (1952): Shirley Booth. Burt Lancaster. Terry Moore.
Dir.: Daniel Mann (both play and film).
Stage (1953): Ralph Meeker. Janice Rule. Eileen Heckart.
Film (1955): William Holden. Kim Novak. Rosalind Russell.
Dir.: Joshua Logan (both play and film).
- Bus Stop.
Stage (1955): Kim Stanley. Albert Salmi.
Film (1956): Marilyn Monroe. Don Murray.
Dir.: Harold Clurman (play). Joshua Logan (film).
‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’ and the Tony Awards
 At the Tony Awards, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Elia Kazan, and Pat Hingle lost to, respectively, Dore Schary’s Sunrise at Campobello and its director and star, Vincent J. Donehue and Henry Jones. In the Best Featured Actress category, Eileen Heckart lost to Anne Bancroft in Two for the Seesaw.
In place of Teresa Wright, shortlisted for the 12th Tony Awards were:
- Helen Hayes for Time Remembered.
- Wendy Hiller for A Moon for the Misbegotten.
- Eugenie Leontovich for The Cave Dwellers.
- Siobhán McKenna for The Rope Dancers.
- Mary Ure for Look Back in Anger.
- Jo Van Fleet for Look Homeward, Angel.
The winner was Helen Hayes, whose performance in Victoria Regina back in the mid-’30s had reportedly inspired Wright to become an actress.
Other stage roles
- Mary Drayton’s Salt of the Earth (1952), as Linnea Ecklund, in New Haven, Connecticut. (No connection to the controversial 1954 movie of the same name, written by Michael Wilson.)
- Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl (1953), as Georgia Elgin (Grace Kelly on the big screen), in Vancouver.
- Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s The Heiress (1954), (unconfirmed) as Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland on the big screen), in Palm Springs, California.
- Sidney Michaels’ Tchin-Tchin (1963), from François Billetdoux’s original, with Wright cast as Pamela Pew-Picket (Margaret Leighton on Broadway).
- Husband Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1965), as Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr on Broadway and on the big screen), in Chicago. (Wright was a last-minute replacement for Lizabeth Scott. Anderson directed the production.)
- Whitfield Cook’s The Locksmith (1965).*
- Oliver Hailey’s Who’s Happy Now? (1969) at New York City’s (off-Broadway) Village South Theatre.
- Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1971), as Mary Tyrone (Katharine Hepburn on the big screen), in Hartford, Connecticut.
- Paul Zindel’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972-73), as Beatrice (Joanne Woodward on the big screen), on tour.
- Death of a Salesman (1974), opposite Martin Balsam, in Philadelphia.
- Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (1987), as the Countess of Rossillion, at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C.
* Whitfield Cook had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock, Teresa Wright’s Shadow of a Doubt director, on the screenplays for Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). He also wrote “The Louella Parsons Story” for Climax!, in which Wright starred as the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist.
A more extensive list of Teresa Wright plays can be found at Film Reference.
 Teresa Wright quote via the Los Angeles Times.
‘The King’s Maid’
 Perhaps foreseeing a Broadway hit starring one of the leads in William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, back in 1941 Life with Father producer Oscar Serlin arranged for Teresa Wright to star opposite Sam Jaffe (Lost Horizon, The Asphalt Jungle) in the first play written by Ferenc Molnár in the United States: The King’s Maid, created in “a free atmosphere” and focusing on “tolerance” and “good will.”
Described as “a Nativity play laid in modern times,” The King’s Maid also featured The Wizard of Oz‘s Margaret Hamilton, future Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire), Marilyn Erskine, and Duane McKinney. Martin Manulis directed.†
The play had its try-out in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in August 1941. Despite good notices for Wright and Jaffe, there were structural problems with the story.
For reasons unclear – Samuel Goldwyn may have wanted her back in Hollywood – Wright ended up replaced by Sam Jaffe’s fellow Lost Horizon performer Margo. Ultimately, The King’s Maid failed to reach Broadway.
The King’s Maid sources: the Milwaukee Sentinel; the New York Times; and Classic Film Aficionados, which lists various sources from the early 1940s.
More TV movies
- Earl Bellamy’s all-star disaster flick Flood! (1976), U.S. television’s answer to Earthquake and The Towering Inferno. In the cast: Robert Culp, Richard Basehart, Barbara Hershey, Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell, Gloria Stuart, and Ann Doran – plus The Poseidon Adventure‘s (and The Elevator‘s) Carol Lynley and Roddy McDowall.
- Anthony Page’s Bill: On His Own (1983), with Emmy nominee Mickey Rooney reprising his Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning role of the kind-hearted, mentally handicapped Bill Sackter, previously seen in Page’s 1981 Bill. Helen Hunt co-starred.
- Christian I. Nyby II’s Perry Mason: The Case of the Desperate Deception (1990), one of a series of Perry Mason TV movies toplining Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, and aired from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s. This particular entry also featured guest stars Ian Bannen, Ian McShane, and Yvette Mimieux.
‘Somewhere in Time’
 Based on Richard Matheson’s 1975 novel Bid Time Return, Somewhere in Time has a number of elements in common with Frank Lloyd’s Berkeley Square (1933), starring Leslie Howard and Heather Angel. Lloyd’s movie, which earned Howard a Best Actor Academy Award nomination, is based on John L. Balderston’s 1926 play, itself based on Henry James’ unfinished and posthumously published (1917) novel The Sense of the Past.
More on Somewhere in Time and its connection with Teresa Wright’s Enchantment and other movies in the follow-up post. See link further below.
The Two Miss Birdies
 Coincidentally, Miss Birdie was also the nickname of Patricia Collinge’s The Little Foxes character: the emotionally disturbed sister-in-law of Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) and aunt of Alexandra Giddens (Teresa Wright).
In case you’re wondering, the 1997 The Rainmaker has nothing to do with the 1956 The Rainmaker, based on N. Richard Nash’s play, and starring Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster under the direction of Joseph Anthony. There is, however, a Teresa Wright connection to Nash’s play.
Three years before her Broadway comeback, Wright starred as the spinster Lizzie Curry in a 1954 staging of The Rainmaker in La Jolla, Southern California. (Geraldine Page played Lizzie on Broadway.)
Christopher Reeve and Teresa Wright Somewhere in Time image: Universal Pictures.
Matt Damon and Teresa Wright The Rainmaker images and clip: American Zoetrope.
Teresa Wright and James Whitmore The Golden Honeymoon image: PBS.
Lou Jacobi and Teresa Wright Roseland image: Merchant Ivory Productions, via Merchantivory.com.