The Stratford Festival Theatre in Ontario has been training and cultivating great actors for years now—William Hutt, Maggie Smith, Brian Bedford, Marti Maraden, Alan Scarfe, and Martha Henry have all done beautiful work—probably some of their best—there. However, with the slight exception of Smith, none have made the transition to film. So to find Martha Henry starring in a new Canadian movie was a great and pleasant surprise.

Dancing in the Dark is director Leon Marr’s feature film debut and a variation on the theme of “diary of a mad housewife.” In it Martha Henry plays Edna, a woman who has devoted her life to her not unkind but somewhat boorish businessman of a husband. She is a woman of single purpose and few friends, spending her time cleaning house, cooking, and waiting for Harry to come home.

When the inevitable phone call comes relating Harry’s equally inevitable adultery, Edna falls to pieces. The movie cuts between scenes of before and after, from Edna at home (dusting the very antennae on the television set and ironing even her underwear) to Edna in the hospital, where she has been placed by the court following her breakdown and her husband’s death. The script is sometimes overblown but not without subtlety, and if the whole movie runs a little too closely along the lines of a feminist stereotype, it is everywhere redeemed by Henry’s performance. After the call comes, the phone drops from her hand, and Henry as Edna sits motionless in her chair as the day turns to dusk and then darkness, tears streaming down an expressionless face. There is no onion held furtively just out of camera range here; 30 long years of training and technique are behind the performing of that scene. It is agonizing and beautiful to watch, and a scene that demonstrates so well that Henry has few equals.

“The alarming thing to me,” says Henry, who is in New York just for the day, “was that playing Edna didn’t touch me at all. She felt just exactly the way I didn’t feel, and that was what was so scary.” It is not so much that Edna has chosen to be a housewife, something Henry as an actress (hence working woman) and feminist finds hard to understand—what is terrifying about Edna is that she has nothing else. She has no resources; no child, no evident other family, no real friends, no outside interests of any kind, nothing so much as a goldfish that is separate and hers alone. Without Harry there is only a void. “I loved him for giving me a life,” Edna says, and when he shatters her life, she takes his: four robotic stabs with a kitchen knife.

Love, or at least some kinds of love, are very greedy. Edna has given everything she can to a man who never asked for it all, perhaps, but who readily accepted it; the bargain was struck, then, and in return he had to give her the requisite parts of himself—praise, solicitude, a little time chatting over dinner, fidelity. Edna doesn’t need any more, but she can’t survive with less, or so she has made herself believe. But Edna the meticulous balustrade cleaner is not the real woman. The real woman is the mad woman in the hospital, silent in her efforts to deal with a flood of thoughts that had been damned up in her head for years and years, filling notebooks with bitter observations in a perfect script.

Henry says what she sees when watching her performance reminds her of her mother, now in a hospital in Michigan. Henry’s mother was not a housewife, but like Edna she spent her life making those around her happy and comfortable. “This was her job,” Henry says. “What I see now is a woman who doesn’t have to do that any more, because nobody cares whether she’s charming or not. In fact, the less charming she is, the more likely she is to get somebody to help get her out of bed, or look after her. So I guess that’s what I see. Somebody with it stripped off.”

Thus peeled, Edna is more real than she has ever been and also unreal—there is always something unbelievable about a broken mind. But she isn’t playacting; she is finally not playacting. She was always shattered. “There must have been pins in the carpet that I did not see. . . . I’m sure I could have been perfect,” she continues, “with more effort.” Henry flies north tonight to return home; Edna we have left back in the theater, finally acting out the one fantasy she seems to have ever had. In her hospital gown she is dancing around and around in the twilight—”trying,” as Henry put it, “to become a human being, against impossible odds.”


[Dancing in the Dark; screenplay by Leon Marr from the novel by Joan Barfoot; directed by Leon Marr; New World Pictures]