Mary Ann Thebus, Chicago stage actor who also played the mother in ‘Rudy,’ dead at 89
Though she didn’t start acting until she was around 45 years old, she appeared in plays at many Chicago theaters and taught acting at the Artistic Home theater.
Mary Ann Thebus became one of Chicago’s most respected, versatile and commanding actors after switching from psychiatric social work and starting her professional stage career at around age 45.
She died Friday at 89 at her home in Andersonville of complications from lung cancer, according to her daughter Jessica Thebus, head of Northwestern University’s master’s of fine arts program in directing for the stage.
Ms. Thebus was nominated about a dozen times for a Jeff award, played the mother in the movie “Rudy” and mentored generations of actors in the classes she taught.
Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, who has remained active on stages in his 90s, said in an email: “We played together at least seven or eight times, most of those as husband and wife, she was always THERE! One of the world’s great actors.”
Ms. Thebus appeared in productions at American Blues Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Court Theatre, The Gift Theatre, the Goodman Theatre, Marriott Theatre, Next Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre and Victory Gardens Theater.
Two of her favorite roles were playing Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” and Amanda Wingfield in “The Glass Menagerie.”
The Artistic Home, where she taught acting, said of her in an online post: “You always knew when she was in the theater — the words ‘Mary Ann is in the house’ invariably sending waves of adrenaline (and occasionally panic) throughout a cast. Her keen gaze, fully immersed, watching from the front row was a common sight and will live on with us for as long as we are here to remember and pass it on.”
Caroline Neff was among many actors paying tribute to her kindness and guidance. They appeared together in a 2012 production of “Three Sisters” at Steppenwolf adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts. To calm her, Ms. Thebus used to slip her chocolate before performances.
Neff recalled how she was working with “a Pulitzer-winner and two Tony Award-winners (Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro) and Carrie Coon and several ensemble members ... and Mary Ann, whom I watched in ‘Rudy’ growing up — that was my sister’s favorite movie. And it was, like, ‘I cannot believe I’m in the room with these people.’ ... She walked up behind me at this big, beautiful, long table on the set ... and she would drop off a piece of chocolate and wink at me and just walk off and she did that every day.
“That was her saying, ‘You don’t have anything to be afraid of,’” Neff said. “And I am not unique in that experience. I can’t say that enough. Like, how did you make this many people feel that special?”
Michael Patrick Thornton, co-founder of The Gift Theatre, said Ms. Thebus’ appearance in its first equity show helped establish the company. He also credits Ms. Thebus for helping him return to the stage for the 2006 one-man show “The Good Thief” after his ability to walk was affected by strokes.
“Even more than physical therapy,” he said, “Mary Ann Thebus gave me my voice.”
BJ Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre, called her “an extraordinary empath” whose insight and intuition improved many productions and performances.
“She’d tell you if she thought something was bull––––. Working actors sought her out for their audition pieces so she could divine truth for them,” said Jones, who appeared with Ms. Thebus in a 1989 Goodman Theatre Studio production of “Mill Fire” that transferred to Off-Broadway. “She’d stop in the middle of a scene and say, ‘Let’s not do that. Let’s go back to it again.’”
Also appearing in “Mill Fire” was her best friend Martha Lavey, the late artistic director for Steppenwolf. After her death in 2017, Ms. Thebus had a collection of Lavey’s scarves that she shared with others.
“She invited a group of women over to look at these scarves. And she just said, ‘These are meant for you. You pick which one is yours,’ ” Neff said. “She builds ... towers of women. Martha was the foundation, because they were hers.” Neff said Ms. Thebus was conveying “‘Now I’m giving them to you, now you choose what to do with them after, so let’s continue to build these towers.’”
And, Neff said, “Every single bouquet that anybody sent her, she hung upside down and dried so that she could look at it before she went on stage.”
Young Mary Ann grew up in Washington, D.C. and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Her mother, Maryland Sen. Margaret Collins Schweinhaut, served in the Annapolis Statehouse more than three decades. Her father, Henry Schweinhaut, was a federal judge in the District of Columbia.
She loved dance–her first experience with performing.
She attended the University of Pennsylvania and earned a master’s degree in psychiatric social work at the University of Michigan, her daughter said. She landed a job in San Antonio, where she met her husband William, who went on to teach English in Iran, Thailand and Turkey.
They later divorced, but during their travels Ms. Thebus started acting in expatriate theater companies.
When she returned to the Chicago area around 1977, she pursued acting as a profession.
“It was what she felt she was meant to do,” said her daughter, who would later direct her mother in “Inherit the Wind” at Northlight and “Morning’s at Seven” at Drury Lane Water Tower.
In 1982, Robert Falls directed her in what he described as her second professional production, a staging of “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You” at Wisdom Bridge Theater. At the time, Sun-Times critic Glenna Syse noted how Ms. Thebus’ “mien can switch spectacularly from the beatific to the malicious.”
“She was just stunning,” said Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre. “Mary Ann was particularly fierce and particularly driven toward honesty and spontaneity ... she not only taught it–there was a fierce commitment to telling the truth.”
Some of her other early performances were at the Organic Theater Company and St. Nicholas Theater Company.
Ms. Thebus is also survived by another daughter, ceramic artist Nana Thebus, and two grandchildren. Memorial arrangements are pending. Her family said donations can be made in her name to The Gift Theatre or the Artistic Home.
“In her honor, go to the theater, go to a Chicago theater, go to a play,” Jessica Thebus said. “That would be the way to raise a glass to her — go watch actors work.”