Washougal Art & Music Festival

A farewell to Joe Cronin and John Dillon

Two longtime stalwarts of the Northwest theater world have died: Oregon actor Cronin, in Eugene; and Portland-born director Dillon, in Seattle.

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Director John Dillon (left) and actor Joe Cronin.

Two leading theater figures, director John Dillon and actor Joe Cronin, died last week.

Dillon, who was raised in Portland and spent a long career as a nationally known director, lived in Seattle at the time of his death and returned to work on occasion in his hometown, including directing William Hurt in a 2011 production of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land at Artists Repertory Theatre.

Cronin was a founding company member of Artists Rep and a leading actor on Portland stages for many years, especially in the 1980s. He also spent several seasons at the Oregon and Utah Shakespeare festivals and on stages in Salem and in Eugene, where he was living when he died.

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Joe Cronin as Titus welcomes Queen Tamora (Penta Swanson) in a 2022 scene from "Titus Andronicus" for Eugene's Fools Haven. Photo courtesy Fools Haven
Joe Cronin as Titus welcomes Queen Tamora (Penta Swanson) in a 2022 scene from “Titus Andronicus” for Eugene’s Fools Haven. Photo courtesy Fools Haven

JOE CRONIN DIED at age 81 on Wednesday, May 15, in Eugene. “I spoke with him a few hours before and he was in good spirits, at peace, no pain,” his former wife and fellow actor, Nyla McCarthy, said. “It was a gentle lift-off. He lived the life he wanted —as the star of his own show, right to the end. A talented man with … a blazing wit to keep us all laughing through our tears.”

That wit and laughter often carried over to the stage, where he brought a wry and dry intelligence to productions by playwrights as diverse as Brian Friel, Harold Pinter, William Shakespeare, Ted Tally, Noel Coward, Michael Hastings, Alan Ayckbourn, and Christopher Durang. Onstage, Cronin — he was Joseph R. Cronin in his theater credits, Joe in pretty much everything else — could also slip almost imperceptibly into deep wells of emotion and insight, exploring the tragic in the comic and the comic in the tragic.

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That duality of theatrical purpose was evident in his 1992 performance for New Rose Theatre with Kelly Brooks in Hastings’ Tom and Viv, about the poet T.S. Eliot and his first wife. “The pairing of Kelly Brooks and Joseph R. Cronin … is cause for celebration,” I wrote in reviewing the show. “Brooks’ keening, comically spitfire Viv suggests madness and single-minded logic at the same time. Cronin’s frighteningly severe Tom shrinks from life into his own cruel private reserve: His face is quietly shocked, quietly haunted, quietly trembling.”

Acting was Cronin’s second career. Born into a large Catholic family in Cambridge, Mass., he earned his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at Boston College, and moved to England with Helen, an Irish woman who became his first wife. “They eventually moved to Oban, Scotland, where Joe worked in research, exploring the chemical power of wave energy as a possible alternative energy source,” McCarthy said.

After 22 years, with his marriage faltering, he relocated to Portland, where several members of his family had moved. Here, McCarthy said, “he turned to acting to salve his spirit, something he’d done ‘as a lark’ while in England, mostly appearing in the annual pantos.” He soon became a charter member of the new Artists Repertory Theatre, bringing the Christmas season comedy panto tradition with him.

The decade of the 1980s was a particularly fertile time for Cronin on Portland stages. Reviewing The Actor’s Nightmare, by Christopher Durang, I wrote that Cronin “gives a superbly befuddled performance as George Spelvin, that age-old anonymous figure of the stage, caught in a terrible dream. It’s a half-hour to curtain time, and George is expected to take over the role. But he doesn’t know his lines, doesn’t know what the role is, doesn’t even know what play is going on. In fact, he didn’t even know he was an actor: He’d always thought he was an accountant. In a series of wild and hilariously embarrassing moments, he lurches onstage from Private Lives to Hamlet to Godot and several other stops, stumbling desperately for the elusive handle that’ll get him through the situation. … Cronin inhabited George as a potent, touching, and almost painfully funny emotional cocktail of desperation and befuddlement.”

Also in the ’80s he performed in hit shows including the comedy The Foreigner with Randall Stuart; Coward’s Design for Living with Twig Webster and Katherine King; Home with David Mong; and Ayckbourn’s black comedy Season’s Greetings with Vana O’Brien and David Heath.

In the early 1990s, as a company member at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, he played such roles as Bardolph in Henry V, Aegeon in The Comedy of Errors, and Uncle George in Friel’s Aristocrats, a performance in which, I wrote, he “wanders like a silent ghost through the house and garden.” He later was a company member at the Utah Shakespeare Festival for several seasons; and, back in Portland in 2000, was in Chris Coleman’s first show as artistic director of Portland Center Stage, a resounding stage adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel The Devils.

Later he performed in one show in Salem, where McCarthy was working as director of Oregon’s Investigations and Abuse and Education Training Unit, and then in Eugene, where he guest-starred in King Lear at Lane Community College and then, with his partner Judy Roberts, ran a company called Fools Haven, performing in Eugene, Springfield, and Florence.

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Cronin acted mostly onstage but also did some film and television work, most notably in the Gus Van Sant movie Elephant and TV’s Nowhere Man and The Haunting of Sarah Hardy. He also became involved in slam poetry; he and his friend John Dooley won the Northwest championships a couple of times.

“Joe was a brilliant writer and loved to write sonnets as cast presents to the other actors in Shakespeare productions he was in,” McCarthy said. “And he loved to debate. We once argued over the value of beauty versus science as an influence on human development. He, speaking for science, naturally. It lasted for hours, I think mostly because he was enjoying the discourse.”

Cronin is survived by his daughter, Erinna McCarthy, and his two sons, Sean and Michael Cronin.

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Tim True (background) and William Hurt in Harold Pinter's “No Man’s Land,” directed by John Dillon in 2011 for Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey
Tim True (background) and William Hurt in Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land,” directed by John Dillon in 2011 for Artists Repertory Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey

JOHN DILLON, the internationally recognized theater director who was born in Portland in 1945, died at age 78 in Seattle on Monday, May 13, after a long period of illnesses.

“John was a wonderful man, the soul of tact and revered by actors and other fellow artists,” Misha Berson, author, former longtime theater critic for The Seattle Times, and correspondent for Oregon ArtsWatch, said. “His wife, Johanna [Melamed], … has nursed him through some very difficult illnesses that somehow never quenched his thirst for life and art.”

Perhaps best-known as the artistic director of Milwaukee Repertory Theatre from 1977 to 1993, he was also active in numerous roles nationally and internationally, creating theatrical exchanges while at Milwaukee Rep with companies in Mexico, Russia, Ireland, Chile, Japan and England. He directed the theater program at Sarah Lawrence College from 2004 to 2010, was associate director of Tokyo’s Institute of Dramatic Arts, and was an artist in residence at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. 

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In Seattle, while he continued to direct and teach elsewhere, he co-founded and served on the board of Theatre Puget Sound, a service organization for theaters and theater workers in the greater Seattle area.

“I first met John Dillon at Berkeley Rep in the 1980s, when he directed a terrific production of American Buffalo (my intro to the play) starring his great friend Larry Shue,” Berson said. “I was delighted when he moved here after retiring from Milwaukee Rep.

“Even when he was quite debilitated, he savored life to the fullest. He loved music and often attended the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Modern Orchestra concerts with his devoted wife and fellow theater artist Johanna Melamed. He always asked me, no matter how difficult things were for him to get out himself, about shows I had seen.”

Dillon was a well-known figure in the American regional-theater circuit, directing shows at major companies ranging from the Alliance and True Colors theaters in Atlanta to Actors Theatre of Louisville, Chicago’s Goodman, the Long Wharf in New Haven, Berkeley Rep, Syracuse Stage, Georgia Shakes, Arena Stage in the nation’s capitol, Seattle Rep, Seattle Children’s Theatre, Portland’s Artists Rep, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where he directed an award-winning production of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning Wit. He worked with many contemporary playwrights and directed several world premieres, including his friend Larry Shue’s comedy The Nerd.

Dillon was known and valued for the care and depth with which he approached the art of directing. Allen Nause, at the time artistic director of Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, hired Dillon to direct Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land for Artists Rep in a 2011 production starring movie star William Hurt and also featuring Nause, Tim True, and Hurt’s son Alex Hurt.

“Working with John Dillon on No Man’s Land was such a joy,” Nause said. “The play was a great challenge, and John was the perfect guide. What I especially loved was the way he encouraged me and all the cast to go places we may have never gone. He pushed us to dig deeply into the work, to take time and to take risks, not just grind it out and play it safe. That is how great art is created. John Dillon was one of the greats, and will be greatly missed.”

Reviewing the production, I wrote: “What we get in this performance is a suggestive dance, a threat but also a softness, a picture of failure that is also, in its contained self-awareness, a kind of success — a survival, a refusal to give in. … All of this is insinuated, pumped into this architectural rendering of a play by director John Dillon and the actors. In this production, at least, Hurt puts the menace into Pinter’s theater of menace, and his co-stars ably dance in contrast and collusion with him.”

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Dillon was, to the end, deeply admired both as an artist and as a person. As Berson put it: “Despite his successes, John was soft-spoken; genial with a quiet charm that belied his tremendous artistic energy. We will all miss him greatly.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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3 Responses

  1. We dedicated the recent Encore series at Artists Repertory Theatre to Joe. He was a brilliant actor and a wicked wit. He starred in “Butley,” the first production our company did on the YWCA stage at the Wilson Center, when we were not yet incorporated as ART. He distinguished our young company with his gentle manners, acting skills, and ever-present sense of humor and kindness.

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