Mary Martello began acting at seven. Fifty years later, she’s just completed what may have been the finest performance of her career: playing the cruel, desperate Mag in Lantern Theater’s scintillating staging of The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Its production—the latest triumph for Martello, who’s been nominated for an astounding 16 Barrymore awards over the years, winning five—has been extended through Feb. 10, but it’ll continue without Martello, as she’s due to perform in Vincent in Brixton at the Walnut Street Theatre beginning Feb. 19.
Before arriving in Philly, Martello had already made a name for herself, spending seven seasons at Princeton’s prestigious McCarter Theatre when it employed a company of performers—the sort of steady work an actor dreams of. However, when the McCarter hired Emily Mann as its artistic director, she chose to use primarily Broadway veterans, leaving Martello without steady employment. Luckily, Philadelphia theater was just beginning to take off, and in 1997, she landed a key role in Walnut Street Theatre’s musical Blood Brothers, the sort of high-profile show that allowed her to be seen.
“Since (Blood Brothers), it’s been pretty steady, in terms of getting work,” Martello says, knocking on wood. “In Philadelphia, I really came into my own and began to discover my strengths as a performer. For instance, at the age of 45, I realized I could be funny on stage.” That was evidenced by her hilarious performance alongside Fran Prisco in the Walnut’s 2009 production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
An accomplished singer, Martello is comfortable performing in a wide variety of theater, equally at home singing the songs of Sondheim as she is performing Shakespeare’s prose. Her first four Barrymore wins were for roles in musical theater, but in October, Martello won her first Barrymore for a dramatic role, capturing the award for outstanding leading actress in a play for her fantastic performance as a lesbian mother in the Wilma Theater’s Body Awareness. To what does she attribute her success? “I quit trying to be pretty,” she says. “I began to accept that whatever I had was what I had to offer.”
The fact that Martello makes a living as an actress in Philadelphia underscores not only her immense talent, but the growth of the city’s theater community. “Now that so many companies have taken off, in terms of their popularity, there are just a lot more opportunities for roles,” she says. And unlike in film, which favors young actors, Martello says that in theater, there are still plenty of parts for veteran performers—especially women—provided they’re comfortable in their own skin. “You have to realize you’re not 45 anymore and that you’re going to be playing grandmothers and at times supporting roles.” The character she plays in Beauty Queen is 70, and later this season, she’s set to play a wheelchair-bound grandmother in the Arden Theatre Company’s A Little Night Music.
Her advice for young actors hoping for a professional career on stage? “Work as much as you can,” she says. “Whether it is community theater, a college production or an extra in a large show, just get on stage. That’s how you really learn: by doing it and watching other people. And stealing what the good actors do.”