“Deeply saddened by the death of Jan Maxwell. I knew at once this so gifted actress was perfect for my work. A voice, a dexterity, a beauty not to be found again in one individual.” —playwright Howard Barker, Feb. 15, 2018
A theatre company that spans more than 40 years contains shared histories that reflect the lives and passions of its theatre artists in relationship. Such is the story of Jan Maxwell, who came into Potomac Theatre Company (PTP/NYC) in its third season through the company’s relationship with her husband, who joined the company during its first. Jan, who was driven by a deep belief in the work of playwright Howard Barker and her longtime association with Richard Romagnoli as director of his work, exemplified passion, intelligence, and resilience. These are the qualities that have guaranteed PTP’s survival over the years.
Jan’s generous spirit embraced the intergenerational artistic profile of the company. She was a light in our midst and a standard bearer for our cause, and of course, her own. As an actress of power and fierce intelligence, she was a collaborator who lifted the energy of the stage, creating both vividness and depth.
Jan tore fiercely through life, leaving no molecule undisturbed. As an actress who shared the stage with Jan said recently, “The very air in the room changed when Jan Maxwell walked in.” She first walked into PTP’s “room” in 1987, as audience to the company’s first Barker production, No End Of Blame; Rob Emmett Lunney, soon to be her spouse, appeared in the play’s central role.
Two seasons later, Jan and Rob returned to Washington, D.C., for Barker’s The Castle. The Castle is in part predicated on the deep division between the women and men in its universe; in the lengthy absence of men at war, the women have transformed the world into a female domain, nurturing and pacifist. During the rehearsal process, Jan and Susan Sharkey, the play’s Skinner, created a universe within the castle walls, inhabited by the play’s women, and drew to them the young actresses who shared the role of Cant.
It was the first of many mentorings, imbuing young artists with the power and possibilities of theatre. As David Barlow, Carpeta (twice) to Jan’s Galactia in Scenes From an Execution, wrote, “She was such an advocate for the students. Challenged them to dig deep and unearth an inner truth that was only theirs to share, and therefore vital.”
It was 18 years before Jan returned to PTP, after we relocated to NYC from D.C. By then her passion and humor and fiery intelligence were beginning to infiltrate New York stages, with appearances in, among others, City of Angels, Dancing at Lughnasa, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, and, in 1997, A Doll’s House. That same year she returned to the Olney Theatre to appear in the title role of Romagnoli’s production of Camille. Camille, in Jan’s eloquent performance, was courageous, selfless, vulnerable, and filled with great compassion.
In 2007, with PTP’s move to New York, we took on the challenge of presenting one of Barker’s works every season; in 2008, that meant Scenes from an Execution, at whose center was Galactia, a formidably talented, deeply sensual, caustic, and raucously humorous Renaissance painter whose refusal to memorialize the military “victory” of the state of Venice by painting a visual hagiography of the Battle of Lepanto spurs the action of the play and engages a debate about art and truth and censorship. The role was painted in every one of Jan’s colors (that is to say, the whole palette) and she, in turn, gave full expression to every aspect of Galactia, who is, in many ways, a monster: She defies the state, she cringes before imprisonment, she glories in martyrdom, she insults her daughters and her lover, she sulks when pardoned by the Venetian state—not a single piece of Galactia was softened or sentimentalized by Jan. The play’s words for the character are also those for the woman who brought her to life:
She moves, she travels, a sort of meteor cleaving her way through dark spaces, undisturbed by gravities, she is under no influence but her own…and she is brilliant.
In 2011, she was back as Bradshaw in Barker’s Victory, coming to rehearsals in Vermont a week late because of the run of Follies at the Kennedy Center, and returning to Follies’ Broadway rehearsals the day before Victory’s press opening in New York. In 2013 came The Castle; Jan was Skinner in this production, the titanic, love- and anger-mad witch whose character inspired some of Barker’s most extraordinary writing. Abandoned by her lover, Ann, and condemned to carry the skeleton of the builder she has killed in an attempt to prevent the creation of a huge machine of war and intimidation, Skinner reaches out across a courtroom to the invisible Ann:
I longed to die, and yet I did not die. That all life should be bound up in one randomly encountered individual defies the dumb will of the flesh clamouring for continuation, life would not have it! I hate you, do you know why, because you prove to me that nothing is, nothing at all is THE THING WITHOUT WHICH NOTHING ELSE IS POSSIBLE.
To experience Jan embodying that moment was to feel viscerally the polar extremes of human passion. The performance was totally without ego. Jan appeared onstage without protection, disarming herself, and in the process the audience.
Finally there was the return to Scenes again, in the summer of 2015. Jan had made her decision to retire from the stage; this role, this play, seemingly crafted to every aspect of her, was an extraordinarily appropriate vehicle and an indelible experience for the audience and every actor onstage with her.
The internet is full of beautiful and deeply merited tributes to a woman and an artist whose absence we will always mourn but who changed permanently the artistic DNA of this art form. It is, we think, appropriate to end with a few words from some of the young artists whose lives she changed with PTP:
“What a complete honor and joy it was to work with her. A very, very sad loss, and a constant inspiration and example.”
“Jan was a complete force of nature. An amazing actress and woman…she brought everyone up around her. It was a privilege to work with and know her.”
“Simply the best.”
And have we mentioned she was very, very funny?
Faraone, Petosa, and Romagnoli are the directors of the Potomac Theatre Project (PTP).