Barbara Orson: A Legacy In Theater

Jul 21, 2017

Barbara Orson, actress and co-founder of Trinity Rep, died on Wednesday. She was 88 years old.
Credit Trinity Repertory Company

Barbara Orson, one of the founders of Trinity Repertory Company, passed away this week at the age of 88.  As an early member of the company, Orson performed in dozens of productions at Trinity Rep and elsewhere. 

"She was a founder of Trinity, but she was also one of those people who was really built to be in the theater," remembered Rhode Island Public Radio Theater Critic Bill Gale. "It was just huge for her. She loved the theater and needed to be in it."

One particular performance from Orson stands out for Gale and many others. It was Orson's portrayal of Bessie, the matriarch in "Awake and Sing," a Depression-era drama by the playwright Clifford Odets.

"It looked at a hard-scrabble life for a Jewish family in the Bronx, and she played the mother named Bessie. And it was just perfect, and she was wonderful at it," said Gale.

The subject matter may have been close to Orson's heart. She was born in New York in the 1930's and grew up there. Later, she married a doctor and raised three children.

It was in the 1960s that Orson co-founded Trinity Rep, an era when the only theater productions in Providence, and many other American cities, were traveling shows, brought in by bus.

"In the 1960s, things began to change all across the country," said RIPR's Bill Gale. "And the people who were here said well, if they can do it in Washington and San Francisco and Pittsburgh, why can’t we do it here?"

And they did, inviting Director Adrian Hall to helm the fledgling company. Today, Trinity Rep is a much-loved institution at the center of a vibrant Rhode Island theater scene.

Orson, who died on Wednesday, is survived by her husband, Dr. Jay Orson, and her children Diane, Beth and Ted. Her funeral is scheduled for Friday afternoon at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.