Ann Norton hasn't let personal tragedy dim her vision for Stage Guild

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

Over the past two years, Ann Norton has lost -- in no particular order -- her husband, her father, her dog, her breasts and, very nearly, her theater company. And so, in the parlance of her craft, she is at the end of her story's second act, that pivotal moment when all seems lost for the heroine, and the audience at intermission stands dumbfounded in the lobby, talking of nothing, guiltily dreaming of fleeing before the Act 3 curtain. And flee it they would, if not for the nagging feeling that salvation might still be possible.

Norton, the 56-year-old executive director of the Washington Stage Guild, knows that hers is a tale too melodramatic to ever actually play on the stage, however. Besides, a play involves conflict, "and there's really been no conflict in all this," she says. "There's just been dealing with this."

It's yet another windy afternoon in February, and Norton is ensconced at a quiet back table at Acadiana downtown. The matriarch of one of the city's proudest small theater companies is dressed simply, her hair flying in all directions as she ticks off a few of the things she's had to deal with: those cloying people who never tire of leaning in close and whispering How ARE you doing? in a manner that is the exclusive province of those who have never suffered grief. Or the ones who seem to luxuriate in the freakishness of it all, maudlin souls who just can't help pondering how Norton's husband, John MacDonald, wound up dead in his bathrobe at the bottom of the stairs. He'd sustained a fatal fall in their home on a night when she couldn't help him.

Winter 2007: "He got up in the middle of the night and smashed his leg on the bed frame," says Norton with a heavy sigh, remembering the divot left in John's ankle by the collision, a wound so deep that she'd begged him to get stitches; he'd stuffed toilet paper in the wound instead. "It got worse and worse. . . . By about a month before he died, he had developed a vascular ulcer and it was very difficult to walk."

On July 6, 2008, she was in Atlanta, tending to her ailing father. Today, she walks through the scene where John died with the familiarity of a detective -- the forensic analysis applied to a space she now occupies alone, their 1920s Sears Craftsman-style house in Mount Rainier. On the upper level: the master bedroom. On the lower: a bathroom with a shower. Connecting the two are 15 or so very steep steps. Each has a nine-inch riser. ("The average step is about eight inches," Norton says.) He was 56 years old when he stood at the top of the staircase that July; no one knows exactly what time of day it was.

"You know, there's this acting exercise we have where you play a scene and you're supposed to show more and more tension" each time you do it, says Norton, somehow managing to chuckle about it all now. "I came back and replayed all the answering machine messages I'd left, and it was like: Oh, wow, it's that acting exercise!"

First message: (blithely) "Hi! Guess you're not up yet."

Second message: (slightly annoyed) "Hi. Thought you'd be up by now."

Third message: (growing concerned) "Hi -- everything okay?"

Norton never saw MacDonald again. His body was eventually discovered by friends and fellow Stage Guild members after frantic phone calls from Norton asking that they check on her husband. "He was found alone in a locked house at the bottom of the steps, which meant that homicide [detectives] had to be called," she says, although an autopsy later concluded that MacDonald had indeed died from a severe concussion consistent with an accidental fall.

* * *

"I don't know any couple who spent as much time together," says Bill Largess, a founding member of the Stage Guild whose connection to Norton and MacDonald dates back to the '70s and Catholic University. His encyclopedic memory of Stage Guild history is an immense comfort to Norton's grief-addled brain. In fact, to spend time with Largess is to experience a sudden, intense nostalgia for a time and place that's gone forever, in this case the theater department at Catholic, back when the Rev. Gilbert Hartke was training generations of theater folk, many of whom have graced the city's stages ever since.


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