Bronia Wheeler, 91, actor, director, and teacher
To ensure that her directing would capture the subtleties of a play about an aging Boston Brahmin couple and their daughter, Bronia Wheeler spoke at length with the playwright, Tina Howe, who based the work on experiences with her relatives.
“I learned from Tina that her mother had a chamber pot about, stuffed with flowers,” Ms. Wheeler told the Globe in 1989. “She collected skeletons of animals, which she kept in the living room. We have all those details. They add a kind of real reality. At least I hope they do. I hope my direction does, too.”
“Painting Churches,” produced at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, was the professional directorial debut for Ms. Wheeler, who had acted with the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, in TV and film, and with Broadway and off-Broadway productions. At the end of the 1950s and early ’60s, she was the understudy for Anne Bancroft and Suzanne Pleshette in the Annie Sullivan role for “The Miracle Worker” in New York City, and then took the lead when the production moved to the Southern Hemisphere.
“I got to do ‘The Miracle Worker’ in Australia because neither Bancroft nor Pleshette wanted to go there,” Ms. Wheeler recalled. “I was of two minds about it. My father had died, my mother was living alone, and it was so far away. I auditioned and deliberately bungled it. I had a dentist appointment, and when I went to the dentist I burst into tears, told him what had happened, and he told me to call back for a second audition. Which I did. And I got the part.”
Ms. Wheeler, who also taught acting for many years and had been married to the late renowned theater director David Wheeler, was recovering from pneumonia when she died March 15 in Briarwood Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Needham. She was 91 and had lived in Weston for more than 40 years.
Globe theater critic Kevin Kelly praised Ms. Wheeler’s direction of “Painting Churches” in 1989. “She understands what’s beneath pentimento. She misses very little,” he wrote. “She has a steady eye on the exact play of light and shadow in Tina Howe’s lovely three-character comedy.”
Among Ms. Wheeler’s strengths was an appreciation of writing that was informed by her childhood as the daughter of immigrants and by studying literature and languages in college. She spoke, read, or could reasonably handle herself in English, Polish, Russian, Spanish, French, and German. At one point, while living in New York in the 1950s, she considered pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University, but instead became associated with American Theatre Wing, which develops education programs and created the Tony Awards.
In the 1989 interview, she said was picked for productions “only because I had a literary background. When directors gave me a script and saw me whip through it, I was usually hired right away.”
She chose Stefan as a stage name when her first New York director, who also had a Polish last name, suggested that Ms. Wheeler “find something better.” Early in her career, she appeared on stage and TV with the likes of Peter Falk, in “Don Juan” off-Broadway, and, in 1964, a young Dustin Hoffman in a Hotel Bostonian Playhouse production of T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party.”
In 1967, Kelly wrote that her Boston performance in Eugene O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” was among her best. “Miss Stefan handles the alteration in O’Neill’s haunted heroine — roughly from avaricious vamp to a tortured woman sinking in the welter of futile love — with stunning conviction,” he wrote.
Born Bronislawa Maryja Sielewicz in Franklin, N.H., she was the only daughter of Bronislaw Sielewicz and the former Ludwika Slonina. Her parents moved to Newport, N.H., where he repaired machines in the woolen mills and she was a loom worker.
“My father thought I’d be ideal as a secretary at the woolen mill, but I wanted something more than that,” Ms. Wheeler said in 1989. “I remember a first-grade teacher I had . . . and how she instilled in me a love for beautiful, wonderful, crazy language.”
She began acting in sixth grade and in high school productions, but turned to literature in college, majoring in English at Boston University, with minors in history and Spanish. Her master’s thesis at BU was on Joan of Arc’s portrayal in British and American fiction and drama.
She met David Wheeler through family friends when he visited Newport in the late 1940s, and they were a couple on and off for about 20 years. “They were both living artistic, creative lives,” said their son, Lewis Wheeler of Boston, an actor and producer. “My dad asked her to marry him several times. She said, ‘I’m not ready.’ ”
She was ready, at last, in 1964, and they became one of Greater Boston’s most significant couples in theater circles. He was the founding artistic director of the Theatre Company of Boston. After Mr. Wheeler died in 2012, Robert Brustein, founder of the American Repertory Theater and Yale Repertory Theatre, called him “one of the founding fathers of postwar Boston and American theater.”
Ms. Wheeler had taught high school in her hometown after college, and then at the Cambridge School of Weston, before acting in numerous productions in Greater Boston and New York. “I’d done some acting in high school, but in graduate school it was still pretty peripheral, and I felt guilty about it, I mean doing it — acting,” she recalled in 1989. “When I started teaching at Newport High, I came to the realization that I was reaching my students not through grammar and composition but, rather, through dramatic literature.”
After the birth of her son, she mostly set aside acting. Ms. Wheeler spent many years as an acting coach, teaching privately and at area universities, and she counted among her students Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the world champion middleweight boxer and onetime aspiring thespian.
In the days since Ms. Wheeler died, former students contacted her son, who is her only immediate survivor, to praise the generous support she offered as a teacher.
A funeral Mass will be said for Ms. Wheeler at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley.
The home she and her husband shared was a trove of memorabilia from their lives. “When Mom did ‘The Miracle Worker’ in Australia, she saved the menu from her flight on Qantas Airlines,” Lewis said.
In an April 1949 postcard, Ms. Wheeler, an ambitious skier in her youth, encouraged her brother to join her at the always-daunting Tuckerman Ravine: “It is like skiing in summer. I had my shirt and dungarees rolled up!”
Among the memories her son treasures, though, is watching her perform with Christopher Lloyd in a 1990 production of August Strindberg’s “The Father.” As the nurse, Ms. Wheeler at one point calmly persuaded Lloyd, descending into madness in the title role, to don a straitjacket.
“It was like a clear beam of light, and I saw the power of her acting,” he said. “It was crystalline and pure and perfect. When I saw that, I thought, ‘I get her acting.’ ”