Mary Laura Wood: Sackville’s Star of Stage and Screen

Recently, while waiting in the lineup at a local bank, someone tapped me on the shoulder. A stranger asked: What’s the subject of the next Flashback? Since having my photo in the Trib is much like being depicted on a police most wanted poster; I was not surprised. I welcome such contacts, as they often lead to topics for future columns.

When I mentioned, Sackvilles star of stage and screen, there was an immediate response: Ive lived here all my life, and have never heard of anybody ever making it to Hollywood. At that moment, both of us were summoned from the lineup by the may I help you call. When I completed my errand I looked around, but the enquirer, served by another teller, had already disappeared.

This incident is mentioned because Ive found that few people are aware that an important stage and screen celebrity came from Sackville. However, it was to be in London, England, not Hollywood, where she would find her place as an actress.

In 1936, the Arts and Letters Club of the Mount Allison School For Girls sponsored a production of William Butler Yeats verse drama: The Land of Hearts Desire. In this play, a major casting problem was presented in filling the demanding role of the fairy child. In Yeats words, this character came from: The world of woods and waters and pale lights/ Where nobody gets old and crafty and wise/Where nobody gets old and godly and grave/Where nobody gets old and bitter of tongue.

Eventually, Mary Laura Wood, the 12 year old daughter of Sackville residents, William Trueman Wood and Mary Uniacke Wood, was selected. Contemporary reports indicate that she literally stole the show. The play was subsequently entered in the Provincial Drama Festival, where it brought words of praise from the adjudicator. With this positive reception behind her, a future star of stage and screen was born. Looking back, its clear, that from a very young age, Mary Laura Wood was destined for a career in the dramatic arts.

Early indications of musical talent led her to be enrolled as a piano student in the Mount Allison Conservatory of Music. At 14, she competed in the Dominion Music Festival held in Halifax. Placing first in her class, the young pianist drew warm praise from the adjudicator, Sir Ernest MacMillan. When interviewed on the radio afterward, Mary Laura demonstrated considerable poise, with her comment: I owe it all to my teacher, Mary Elizabeth Bell.

Mary Laura Woods sister, Faith Wood Breen, recalls growing up in Sackville during the 1930s. Since this was long before television and video games, we were largely responsible for our own entertainment. We made up skits and often performed for the family. I recall summers spent at our mothers ancestral home, Mount Uniacke, in Nova Scotia., where we staged skits for an array of cousins, aunts and uncles.

The same thing happened in the Wood home on York Street and at the cottage near Cape Tormentine. ML as she was known by her family, often organized neighbourhood children in impromptu plays. Her sister concluded the seeds were sown; ML knew that she wanted to become an actress.

Following graduation from high school, Mary Laura Wood enrolled at Mount Allison University. Although it had an active Little Theatre Society; the university lacked formal courses in drama. An institution with a recognized program in dramatic arts had to be found. But where?

The Wood family sought advice from a distinguished Mount Allison graduate, Dr. Frank Parker Day, then President of Union College in Schenectady, New York. He recommended that Mary Laura attend Carnegie Tech University in Pittsburgh, now Carnegie-Mellon University. At the time it was, and still is today, known for having one of the best and most rigorous programs in the field.

Days advice was sound and Mary Laura Wood excelled in her studies at Carnegie Tech. Throughout four years there, she managed to earn her tuition through scholarships. In her final year, Mary Laura won the prestigious Memorial Award… given to the member of the senior class in Drama, who has made the greatest contribution to the Department, taking into account professional standards, personal relationships and talent.

In addition to a heavy course load and participation in a wide variety of plays as prescribed by Carnegie Techs drama program, she was also involved in commercial theatre productions at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. One of the directors there was Robert Gill, later to achieve fame as a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Mary Laura Wood graduated in 1946 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama.

With this background and experience, the next question was: Where should she pursue her professional career? For any graduate of Carnegie Tech, Broadway, and then possibly sometime in the future Hollywood beckoned. However, ML very quickly made up her own mind. As Faith recalled, Her view was that the London stage was more committed to art for arts sake.

In October, 1946 it was off to England for the two Wood sisters. Faith, an artist, accompanied ML and they rented a walk up flat in Redcliffe Gardens, on the edge of Chelsea in London. Faith remembered it as a convenient location, with good light for my painting. For ML there followed endless rounds of the casting agencies. Throughout, she continued to hone her acting skills by participating in repertory plays, in locations as far away as Croydon.

Then, just as Mary Laura Wood was certain it would, her first break came. It began by being named understudy to actress Betsy Drake, in the play Deep Are The Roots. Based on a book by Arnaud dUsseau and James Gow; it portrayed the tense race relations in the Southern United States. Following a years run on Broadway, where it was regarded as a trail blazer; the play reached Londons West End. After a short period in the lead role, Ms. Drake abruptly left the show to marry actor Cary Grant. As a footnote, she was to be the third of Grants five wives. They were married on Christmas Day, 1949.

Immediately, Mary Laura Wood was propelled into the limelight. MLs solid performance in this play was the open sesame for other roles in a wide variety of productions. These included plays such as: The Dark Of The Moon, Death Of A Salesman and All My Sons. She was also Vivien Leighs understudy, in A Streetcar Named Desire. It was said that ML bore a striking resemblance to the famous Ms. Leigh; and she later took over Leighs role, when the play went on tour.

Valley of The Eagles was Woods first full length movie. This 1951 J. Arthur Rank production was an action/adventure movie that also starred John MacCallum (See accompanying illustration). Partly filmed on location in Norway and Sweden, it told the story of a Swedish professors search for his wife and one of his assistants. They had stolen some scientific data; and were eventually tracked to the Valley of The Eagles. The movie was so named because in this remote area Laplanders used eagles to hunt; as gunfire would precipitate avalanches. During their epic journey the two fugitives were attacked by wolves and eventually lost their lives in an avalanche.

As with her first West End stage production, this movie led to other contracts. These included: Raising A Riot,a comedy with Peter Toye and Kenneth More; Holiday In Spain along with movies in the famous Doctor In The House series of English comedies. In one of these,Doctor At Sea, the cast included actor Dirk Bogarde. The same movie also featured a cameo appearance by Bridget Bardot, then at the beginning of her career. Interspersed with movie contracts were stage roles in productions such as: Young Rennie by Canadian author Mazo de la Roche and an American play The Troublemakers.

A complete summary of Woods movie career in England, spanning as it did some twelve major productions, cannot be given in a single column. Ive been told by one cinema buff and insomniac, that movies starring Mary Laura Wood are occasionally to be found on late night television. Interested readers should check the movie summaries, to be found in the various television guides. Unlike many other actresses, she did not adopt a pseudonym so, just keep looking for Mary Laura Wood.

During this period, she married Irish actor Ronan OCasey, then a star in the London production of Kiss Me Kate. Unfortunately the marriage did not last. Following the breakup of her marriage she returned to Canada. Based in Toronto for a time, she played lead roles in such classics as: The Philadelphia Story and Duet For Two Hands.

After her retirement from stage and screen she returned to her native province to be near her mother, then living in Alma. What started out as a holiday, was destined to become a permanent residence. In 1973, she bought a cottage on Almas main street. Following a hectic and busy career in the world of film and theatre, in the words of her sister Faith, she was to enjoy the cool peace of this place by the sea. Mary Laura Wood died at Alma on March 30, 1990.

On reviewing Mary Laura Woods many contributions to the dramatic arts, two characteristics stand out. The first was her versatility. Not all actors or actresses can move from stage to screen and back again. Further, she was equally at home in Londons West End theatres, as on a movie set in Scandinavia or wherever. Nor was she ever typecast in a particular role. The variety of characters she portrayed underline this point. ML could move from the extremes of tragedy to comedy with the greatest of ease.

The second characteristic of Woods career, dedication to her profession, was clearly revealed in a 1956 interview. Mary Laura Wood had decided that it was time to go home for a typical New Brunswick Christmas. Shortly after, she was asked to give advice to young Canadians who may have aspirations for a career in the theatre.

Here are some of her comments: You have to love acting to be able to stick it out the acting life is a never ending struggle. On the London theatre: It is the healthiest English speaking theatre in the world its part of the life of the people. On her Canadian heritage: I am just as much a Canadian as I ever was.

Looking back, the title of the play that marked MLs first West End starring role Deep Are The Roots will surely stand as her epitaph.

Many people helped write this Flashback. In particular I would like to thank Faith Wood Breen, Bracebridge, ON and Pamela Black, Sackville NB, for granting interviews. Without their willingness to share reminiscences of ML, this column could not have been written. Martha Breen, Toronto and Dr. Gwen Black, Sackville were also of great assistance.