It shouldn’t be hard to spot Sally Wingert. She’s appeared in more than 75 shows at the Guthrie Theater since 1985. Her name alone puts butts in seats. She’s drawn comparisons to Meryl Streep for her dramatic range, and her stage presence—warm, crackling, and unpredictable, like a flickering candle—is so well known to Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling that he rarely bothers to audition her anymore before assigning her a part. She’s as reliable as the Guthrie is blue. ¶ But she’s wearing a thick knit hat as she walks into the coffee shop near her house in St. Paul, and her glasses are fogged. She could be anyone. Until she sits down and starts talking about David Hyde Pierce. “I’m gonna tell you honestly,” she says, leaning across the table. “Excluding my husband, my sons, and my dad, he is the nicest man I’ve ever met. So erudite, so kind, just a total mensch.” He was also her co-star in La Bête, a comedy in iambic pentameter that they performed for much of 2010 in London and on Broadway.
“It was a gas!” she says. “It felt great to tell people, ‘I’m on Broadway.’ But I am terribly happy here.” Raised in Duluth, she got her actor’s union card at 23 and has trod the boards ever since. Her first show, several decades ago, was a forgettable farce at the New Hope Outdoor Musical Theatre. (“Oh, that was stinky,” she says.) This month, having spent the winter playing a nun in Doubt, she’s one of the sweet but deadly spinsters in the Guthrie’s remount of Arsenic and Old Lace, the frenetic old Cary Grant vehicle. It’s a part Meryl Streep might play, if not Halle Berry.
“I’ve played, like, two ingénues in my life,” she says.
“I mean, c’mon, when you’re as funny-looking as I am.” She laughs. “I must have been a good person—or a good beetle or something—in a previous life, because I’m lucky to have had this longevity on stage. It is a young person’s game. But I feel really strong and powerful right now.”
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT SALLY
1. She was a playing card in her first high-school play, Alice in Wonderland.
2. The Guthrie cancelled Shooting Star, written for her, when she landed La Bête.
3. She’s superstitious, never saying the word Macbeth: “I completely buy into that.”
4. She played the wife of the irate customer scammed by Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo.
5. Her husband of 25 years, Tim Danz, teaches at a charter school in St. Paul.