Editor’s note: Misha Berson was a theater critic for the Seattle Times from 1991 to 2016. Here she remembers Seattle’s quintessential actor John Aylward.
One of the first shows I saw after becoming a theater critic for the Seattle Times in 1991 was a thunderous version of “The Miser” by Molière at the Seattle Rep.
I knew Seattle was full of good actors and the production was proof positive. It was packed. But the one who impressed me the most was John Aylward.
Aylward died suddenly at his Capitol Hill home on May 16, of natural but still undetermined causes. He was 75 and, according to Mary Fields, his artist wife of 36 years, he had been feeling unwell for a while.
When I learned of his passing, his splendid turn as the title character of “The Miser” came to mind. In my review, I called it “a cross between Archie Bunker and Charles Laughton as Quasimodo,” and wrote that Aylward attacked “the role with such verve that it’s hard to hate the frolicking and preening, bellowing one minute and squealing like a weasel the next, kicking up the skirt of his long coat like a monstrous lizard wagging its tail, he’s a magnificent breeder from hell…”
It was the first of many performances of Aylward which I deeply admired. He was simply a force of nature on stage and, for over 40 years, a quintessential Seattle actor.
The eldest of a large Irish Catholic family, Aylward grew up on Capitol Hill and was introduced to theater at an early age in a parochial school. A graduate of Garfield High School, he was one of the first students accepted into a new theater program at the University of Washington that would produce many notable performers.
He made his professional debut at Seattle’s ACT theater (co-founded by Gregory Falls, a former president of the UW School of Drama) in the 1970s, and became an essential part of a floating ensemble of versatile young actors. and fearless who helped put ACT, Empty Space and The Bathhouse on the national theater map. Loved by his peers, he performed with distinction in all these theater houses.
From the 1990s, he juggled between stage roles and a successful career in Hollywood. He seemed to be popping up all over the screen: in continuing roles on ‘ER’ and ‘The West Wing’, most recently on USA Network’s ‘Briarpatch’, and dozens of other TV shows and movies. But his primary residence remained in Seattle. And every time we spoke (he was a warm, witty interviewee with an Irish gift for storytelling), Aylward made it clear that the Seattle scene was his first love.
Tough and balding from a young age, he never expected to be a romantic lead, and he didn’t mind playing much older men – often violent and cantankerous – long before he hit 40. He approached each role with enthusiasm, as a follower of comedy. how textured and believable he was in dramas.
Some of my favorite performances were also his. He was incredibly desperate as Shelley, a hapless salesman in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” at Seattle Rep. In “Inspecting Carol” (also to the rep), he was hilarious as a prima donna actor spouting artistic nonsense in a staged mise-en-scène “A Christmas Carol.”
“An accomplished and widely respected actor, John has left an indelible mark on the Seattle theater community and all those he has collaborated with over his long career,” Seattle Rep said in a Facebook post.
In his final Seattle callback, at ACT in 2015, he ripped the role of overbearing Southern patriarch Big Daddy in the Tennessee Williams classic, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” In Big Daddy, he found the bully, but also rare glimmers of tolerance.
He played Shakespeare’s Caesar, Miller’s Salesman and, yes, Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” And no doubt many Seattle goers will remember their favorite Aylward rides from the 1970s and 1980s, before my time here.
I also got to see his sensitive portrayal, at the ACT Theater, of the brilliant tormented poet and UW professor Theodore Roethke, in the 2007 solo play “First Class.” Like writing great poetry, doing good is always a high-flying act. And a line from Roethke seems an apt epitaph for this actor: “What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.”
Aylward is survived by his wife, a brother and a sister, as well as nephews and nieces. Plans for a memorial service will be announced later.