Anne Pitoniak, Original Star of 'night, Mother, Is Dead at 85

Obituaries   Anne Pitoniak, Original Star of 'night, Mother, Is Dead at 85 Anne Pitoniak, the self-effacing actress who received a Tony Award nomination for her powerful potrayal of a stunned and frightened woman in Marsha Norman's 'night, Mother, died April 22 at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.
Anne Pitoniak in 'night, Mother.
Anne Pitoniak in 'night, Mother. Photo by Richard Feldman

Ms. Pitoniak created the title role in 'night, Mother, a confused but determined mother who tries to talk her grown daughter out of her plans to kill herself that evening. Kathy Bates played the saddened young woman. The play was hailed for its biting, unrelenting realism and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983.

It was the third Norman play Ms. Pitoniak had appeared in. The first was Getting Out at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was Norman's first play and one of the first professional roles for Ms. Pitoniak, who had spent her life up until then as a wife and mother, before deciding in late middle age to take acting classes from Ernie Martin at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute. She was 61 when she made her Broadway debut in 'night, Mother.

Following 'night, Mother, she appeared in the Broadway play The Octette Bridge Club along with Elizabeth Franz and Nancy Marchand. It didn't last long, but Ms. Pitoniak collected a Drama Desk Award nomination.

Like Getting Out, The Octette Bridge Club began at the Actors' Theatre of Louisville, where Ms. Pitoniak spent five years. Other credits there included John Pielmeier's Agnes of God and Jane Martin's Talking With, which moved to Off-Broadway, winning the actress a Theatre World Award. Also in Louisville, she played a grandmotherly, radically conservative pro-lifer in Martin's Keely and Du. She won an Obie Award for her work as a stylish Mrs. Higgins in a 1991 Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Pygmalion.

She was back on Broadway in 1994 in a revival of William Inge's Picnic, collecting a second Tony nomination. She played Helen Potts, who is tied down by her bedridden mother. "Drudgery and hopelessness are the character's lot," wrote David Richards in the New York Times. "So what does Ms. Pitoniak do? She accentuates the spring in her aged step, the twinkle in her milky eye and the joy in a heart that refuses to give up. It's a deft, endearing portrayal of what is usually a marginal character." In the last decade of her career, Ms. Pitoniak's roles often demanded little more of her than looking old and ravaged. Nonetheless, she attacked them with conviction. She played Judi Dench's feeble mother in Amy's View. She was a gnarled old woman in the 2001 revival of Strindberg's Dance of Death starring Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. And she played a silent, wild-eyed and wild-haired resident of a rest home in Horton Foote's The Last of the Thorntons. In each part, she exhibited a lack of vanity unusual in her profession.

She was born in Westfield, MA, on March 30, 1922. Ms. Pitoniak graduated from what is now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She joined the U.S.O. soon after, according to the New York Times, performing in shows overseas. There she met her husband, Jerome Milord, a soldier. The marriage lasted until 1968 and produced a son, Christian, and a daughter, Susan.

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