Pals Sally Wingert, Linda Kelsey share the stage for the first(ish) time

By CHRIS HEWITT | chewitt@pioneerpress.com
February 4, 2016 | UPDATED: 2 months ago

They were walking a picket line when they met. Now, they’re about to star in a play in which one of them uses a walker. And, if you happen to be in the right St. Paul neighborhood, you might see actresses Sally Wingert and Linda Kelsey on one of their weekly power-walks.

The veteran performers — now appearing together for the first(ish) time in the comedy “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” at Minnesota Jewish Theatre — met in 2000, when their union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, was on strike. Kelsey, whose recent stage roles have included “4,000 Miles” and “Handle With Care,” was feeling uneasy.

“Walking picket lines is not my favorite thing to do, and, in fact, it was really hard for me to say I would do it. But I believed in the strike, and so I decided, ‘OK, I moved here. I’m part of this community. I’m going to do it,’ ” recalls Kelsey, 69, who relocated to her native Minnesota from Hollywood after a long career in movies and TV, including five Emmy nominations for the series “Lou Grant.”

“So I am walking with my little sign and feeling totally alone because I didn’t know anybody there, and this woman (Kelsey gestures to Wingert, 58) comes up to me to say, ‘Hello.’ She is legendary in this community for that, for being friendly to everyone,” Kelsey says.

“That’s not true,” Wingert demurs.

“It’s totally true,” insists Kelsey, who lived in Hudson, Wis., at the time and who began a friendship with Wingert.

“It’s not like we were always on the phone,” says Kelsey, remembering the friendship’s early days.

“No, but we were always happy to see each other. Then, she moved three or four blocks away from me and, eventually, we started to walk,” Wingert says. “I walk each day with a different girlfriend, Monday through Friday — I have a Monday walk, a Tuesday walk. So we began a walk and, early on, we were talking about friendship and intimacy and — do you remember this conversation, Linda?”

“Not specifically.”

“Well, I remember you saying, ‘I’m looking for another girlfriend, somebody in my world.’ And I think I said, ‘Well, I’d like to be that girlfriend.’ And we fell into a really close friendship. She’s one of my closest friends,” Wingert says.

The routine has altered over the years. Kelsey used to be the Tuesday walker but had to switch to Wednesdays when she began Spanish lessons (“My daughter was living with us and, looking out the window, she saw Sally walking by one Tuesday and she called me to say, ‘Mom, Sally is cheating on you. She’s got another Tuesday.’ “). They’ve also resorted to virtual walks when Kelsey and her husband, Glenn Strand, make their annual trips to France or when Wingert traveled to New York and London with the play “La Bete.”

Beyond keeping fit, Kelsey says one great aspect of the Wednesday walks is that it’s a regular date to talk about kids, cooking, faith (they go to the same church), work and whatever else is on their minds. These days, that sometimes includes “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” a play local theatergoers may recall from a Valerie Harper touring production at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in 2002.

‘THREE GREAT LADY PARTS’

The new production of “Allergist’s Wife” began when Minnesota Jewish Theatre’s artistic director, Barbara Brooks, asked Wingert if she’d be up for starring in it as a bored Manhattan woman whose life is turned upside-down when an old friend drops in. (Kelsey plays Wingert’s bawdy mother.)

“Barbara has given me astonishing opportunities. Some of the hardest and most interesting work I’ve done in the last six years has been at Minnesota Jewish Theatre,” says Wingert, who was the lone performer in the company’s “Rose” and “Woman Before a Glass.” “But they’ve all been solo. So I said to her, ‘Please. Let me work with someone else. I’m bored with myself.’ ”

She got her wish with “Allergist’s Wife,” which features, as Wingert puts it, “three great lady parts,” also including Maggie Bearmon Pistner as the friend. The cast is rounded out by David Coral as Wingert’s husband and Charles Goitia as her doorman. It’s a comedy of the sort that will be familiar to Neil Simon fans, but the actresses say there’s more to it than meets the eye.

“I understand her and how the rhythm of this language needs to go to get the desired effect. But, partly because (director Warren C. Bowles) is such a good actor and he knows how to probe the little soft spots, he’s making us look really closely,” Wingert says. “You could say it’s a funny, slightly glib take on a post-menopausal woman who is having a midlife crisis, but there’s a lot more to it. Don’t you think we have stuff to mine, Linda?”

“I do. There is more to the play. Your role has more to chew on than mine,” Kelsey begins.

“Oh, it’s chewy. But you’re all over the play,” Wingert says.

“I guess the challenge is understanding how my character fits into the deeper scheme of the play, which Warren is helping us discover. Frieda could be just a device to get laughs …” Kelsey starts.

“… because she always talks about her bowel movements. That could just scream one-joke-pony,” Wingert adds.

“… but all of us are looking for more. We are all trying not to play caricatures,” finishes Kelsey, who notes that after “4,000 Miles” last year at Park Square Theatre, Frieda is the second time in recent months she has played a woman who uses a walker. “I seem to have moved through the leading-lady phase of my career. I hope I’m joking about that, but …”

“Do you really hope you’re joking? Because I feel like that’s all I’ve done. I’ve been doing character parts since I was 16. Welcome to my world!” Wingert replies.

She’s exaggerating a bit, as Wingert became perhaps the most beloved performer in the Twin Cities with leading roles in dozens of Guthrie Theater productions, such as “Private Lives” and “Other Desert Cities,” but it is true that even the leading parts required a character actor’s artistry.

Like many of the smart, articulate women she has played, it’s easy to see why a director might think of Wingert for Marjorie, the title character in “Allergist’s Wife.”

“Somebody asked me at the Playwrights’ Center what I would like to play if someone wrote a play for me, and I said I’d like to play a shy person who’s not very intelligent. I don’t get those roles because I don’t project that. Not that I’m smart — but I don’t project shy. I’m not shy,” says Wingert, who just completed a run in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” a play she’d already like another crack at. “But I am not this character, either. I’m not a volcano. I’m not depressed. I am in midlife, post-menopausal, but I’m really not in her shoes. So there’ll be a bit of a journey, and I want to explore that more.”

LEADING LADIES

One of the pleasures of the play, for both Kelsey and Wingert, is the rare chance to explore it with others in their own demographic. Kelsey speaks fondly of bringing together a group of women with whom she wanted to work — including Aditi Kapil and Mo Perry — for a benefit performance of “Love, Loss and What I Wore” at Park Square three years ago.

Wingert was in that one, too.

“I would kill to have a play to work on with Linda and Michelle Barber and Regina (Marie Williams) and Greta Oglesby. All of them! But there’s usually only one part for a woman this age. So the cohort of women my age, I don’t get to work with them much,” says Wingert, who reluctantly admits that she has begun to contemplate the possibility of directing a play.

Speaking of actresses on stage together, although “Allergist’s Wife” is being billed as the first time the St. Paul neighbors have worked together, that’s not true.

“It’s kind of a lie,” Wingert says. “We did ‘When We Were Married’ at the Guthrie …”

“… but we weren’t even on stage together, really. A brief passing, with maybe a two-line exchange,” finishes Kelsey, recalling that she performed that actress-filled show in a cast after breaking her wrist while bicycling to the first preview performance.

Wingert and Kelsey get to spend quite a bit of time together in “Allergist’s Wife,” mostly with Kelsey needling Wingert. But they want more.

“I just wish we had more scenes together, more to do. It’d be fun,” says Kelsey, who notes that the experience of “Allergist’s Wife” has revealed that she and Wingert work with a similar method, slowly finding their way into their characters.

Perhaps there will be time on a future walk to dream up a project that would give them loads of time to act together on stage. Even off-stage, Kelsey admits there are times when their brisk walks get a little, well, theatrical.

“We’re two actresses, walking along, gesturing wildly,” Kelsey says.

“Animated, always animated,” Wingert says.

“People will come from the opposite direction and make comments about it sometimes: ‘Oh, you two are having a good time, huh?’ ” says Kelsey, with a chuckle.

And you know what? They may have to grab at elbows when they hit an icy patch, offer a comforting word during a tough time or help each other negotiate through a tricky scene, but the answer to that question is: Yes. They definitely are.