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Nancy E. Carroll, luminary actress in Boston productions, dies at 70

Ms. Carroll had a long list of stage roles in productions including “Hamlet,” Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Doll’s House,” and “North Shore Fish.”Bohn, John Globe Staff

For some stage roles Nancy E. Carroll memorized mountains of words, including an 8,000-word monologue in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul” — a task so daunting that she tracked down a copy of the play in a smaller type size to shrink the script from 63 pages to 25.

“I thought, ‘This psychologically feels better,’ " she told the Globe in 2006.

On stage, however, she needed not a word to make a lasting impression.

“So many people think that if you’re not speaking you’re not acting. She was the best listener I’ve ever seen,” said Aimee Doherty, who had acted with Ms. Carroll. “She absorbed everything. It was incredible to watch her listen. I would pay a lot of money just to watch her listen.”


A three-time Elliot Norton Award-winner for performances in plays including “Bailegangaire” and “Present Laughter,” Ms. Carroll found peace and solace offstage in her Rockport home. She was 70 when she died of cancer Dec. 24 while in hospice care in Milton.

“Watching her walk on stage was a lesson in acting,” said Michael Maso, managing director of the Huntington Theatre Company, where Ms. Carroll appeared in 14 productions.

“You couldn’t take your eyes off her,” he said. “She had attitude coming off her. And she told a story every time she came on stage — before she said a word.”

Ms. Carroll, with Russell Harvard in the Huntington Theatre Company's " I Was Most Alive with You." T. Charles Erickson

Ms. Carroll’s performance often was what audiences remembered and critics praised, regardless of the production or the role.

“Nancy E. Carroll’s presence has become all the reason one needs to go see a local production,” Globe critic Ed Siegel wrote in 2003 of her appearance in Donald Margulies’s “Collected Stories” for the Gloucester Stage Company.

In 2002, she was Mommo, an Irish grandmother with dementia, in the Sugan Theatre Company’s production of Tom Murphy’s play “Bailegangaire.”


Globe critic Louise Kennedy wrote that Ms. Carroll was “virtuosic in her command of this role’s linguistic demands, deft in her physical portrayal of senility (watch as she greedily sucks on a butterscotch), and riveting as she draws her tale to a climax. Listen to the others, but stay with Mommo. Her laughter will break your heart.”

Memorizing those long monologues was challenging, though Ms. Carroll’s preparation included a visit to Ireland, a place she held dear.

“When I saw the wall of words, I was terrified,” she told the Globe in 2002. “I began work on it four to six weeks before rehearsals began and took the script with me on a trip to Ireland. A wonderful man in County Clare tutored me in Gaelic. What a taskmaster — I didn’t get away with anything!”

Her brother James of Alexandria, Va., said “there was something about that country that rang some kind of ancestral bell the very first moment she set foot in it. Besides Rockport, that was the place that fed her soul, especially western Ireland, County Clare.”

So adept was Ms. Carroll with accents, especially for Irish roles, that when she performed in Ireland in Martin McDonagh’s play “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” audience members who met her after each show “were shocked to discover that she was a Yankee, and not from Country Clare,” her brother recalled. “Some people asked her, ‘Where in Clare are you from?’ And she said, ‘I’m from Massachusetts.”


Nancy Elizabeth Carroll was born in Haverhill on Sept. 27, 1952, and grew up in Toledo, Ohio, the second of four children.

Her father, Joseph R. Carroll, was a composer who taught at the University of Toledo and wrote music criticism. Along with raising the children, her mother, Joan Hebert Carroll, worked as a clerk at the university.

Ms. Carroll pursued ballet as a girl, but told North Shore magazine in 2014 that she knew her “body wasn’t going to hold up to that kind of punishment, so when it came time to choose a college, I chose a conservatory where I could have dance, singing, and drama all in one place.”

That was the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

Her marriage to actor Stephen Stilgenbauer, whose involvement with musicals led her into many performances in that realm, ended in divorce. He died in 2006.

After their marriage, she returned to Boston and sought dramatic roles to expand her range and career.

“I gave up musicals and just buried that ability. After you’ve done dozens of them, you’re just ready for something else,” she told the Globe in 2002, adding that “it dawned on me that being a character actress was going to give me more opportunities and greater longevity.”

She had a long list of stage roles in productions including “Hamlet,” Much Ado About Nothing,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “A Doll’s House,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “North Shore Fish.”


“Every theater in town wanted Nancy to work for them. She never stopped working,” said her actress friend Karen MacDonald. “She was very much in demand because you wanted to have her in the room. You wanted her presence in rehearsals — her energy, her commitment, and her incredible humor.”

Ms. Carroll also performed in the solo show based on Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” and was Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days,” in which her character spoke nonlinear dialogue while mostly buried in a mound of dirt on stage.

Ms. Carroll starred in Samuel Beckett's "Happy Days" at Gloucester Stage Company in 2006.Polo, Bill Globe Staff

“She was unique in her delivery,” Paula Plum, the actress and interim artistic director of Gloucester Stage Company, said of her friend’s many roles. “No one could deliver a line in the understated way that Nan could and evoke so much laughter. She had a style all her own.”

Ms. Carroll also was in the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight” and the HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel.

“The thing about her on stage is that she was utterly, utterly reliable as a scene partner,” Plum said. “I adored working with her.”

And offstage, “she was incredibly kind,” Doherty said. “She was a wonderful role model and she was just very giving of her time to the young actresses in Boston. I think everybody who worked with her looked up to her.”

In 2018, Ms. Carroll directed the play “Calendar Girls,” based on the 2003 movie about several middle-aged British women who posed discreetly au naturel for a calendar to raise funds for leukemia research. In keeping with the true story that inspired the movie, the local actresses asked audiences to donate to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.


Two years later, as pandemic isolation set in, Ms. Carroll gathered the “Calendar Girls” actresses on Zoom to socialize. And when she subsequently was diagnosed with cancer, they helped bring her to medical appointments.

“I love true stories,” Ms. Carroll had said in 2018 of the play that later echoed through her life.

In addition to her brother James, Ms. Carroll leaves two other brothers, Peter of Canton and Sean of Chevy Chase, Md.

A private burial was held in Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Methuen. A celebration of her life will be announced.

In downtime during plays, Ms. Carroll often worked on a complex puzzle backstage, sorting through hundreds of pieces.

“Her brain was always working, her eye was always working,” MacDonald said. “She was solving puzzles. I guess in a way, that’s what she did in her life — solve those puzzles: ‘How do I take these thousand pieces and put them together as a character?’ "

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.