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Joan Patricia Tolentino Dunton (November 14, 1934-January 4, 2019)
The curtain rose on Joan Tolentino on November 14, 1934. A full-fledged starring role, not any run-of-the-mill out-of-town tryout. Joan was a consummate theater person from Day One. As an actress, her chiming high soprano carried to the last row of the balcony. Her official acting career started when she was 10 at the Boston Children’s Theater. She played Lavinia in “A Little Princess,” and she continued to light up the stage for the better part of 40 years. At the Leland Powers School, she not only studied drama but every aspect of performance and production. She worked on costumes and studied the history of costumes, did make-up, and coached other actors.
She was also a consummate prankster—setting a script on fire, for example, while a classmate was doing a radio broadcast. She would write funny copy that had to be read with all seriousness, including the fake recipe Grandma Tolley’s Goose Grease Goodies. At Leland Powers, she met fellow actor David Dunton. They graduated in 1954 and were married in November. And stayed married for 64 years.
She performed and taught at MIT, Harvard, and Radcliffe. One of her fondest—and finest—achievements was working with the legendary Dr. Joseph Everingham at MIT’s Dramashop, where she became an integral part of its transformation into a co-curricular program. She turned every role, including character roles, into a leading role and helped coach the undergraduateactors. Among the students she shared billing with were Stockard Channing (on whose 1980 TV series she later appeared), Tommy Lee Jones, and James Woods.
Joan Tolentino was a thorough professional.
Her own favorite roles include Andromache in Thomas Babe’s 1967 dark musical version of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Birdie in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Mariana in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and the most powerful stage mother ever created, the indomitable Mama Rose in Gypsy.
In 1964, she appeared as Clytemnestra in a production of The Oresteia. The Harvard Crimsonreviewer wrote that “No one who was in Sanders Theatre last night will ever forget Joan Tolentino's Clytemnestra. ‘A woman merely,’ she describes herself, yet she dominates the stage. She outfaces Agamemnon; she towers over Aegisthus (and the directors emphasize this by placing her a level above him on the stage as she snaps down the Argive elders.” In the 1960s, she was a regular member of the professional company at the Loeb Drama Center and the Harvard Dramatic Club, when Timothy Mayer and Thomas Babe were the directors, playing characters as diverse as the hilarious mayor’s wife in The Inspector General and the tragic Marie in Woyzeck (in which she was praised for her “depth of character”). As Andromache, celebrated writer and theater personage Timothy Crouse found her performance “heartrending.” In Mayer’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, future movie director Tim Hunter wrote that she and Thomas Babe as Hermia and Lysander “evoked consistent laughter from the happy opening night audience.”
At a later performance, with Joan lying asleep on the stage, Babe missed his entrance cue, but Hermia couldn’t wake up and not find Lysander there, because the rest of the play depended on her seeing him. So Joan rolled back and forth on the stage, ad-libbing a newly invented “dream” for more than five minutes, until Babe realized that his presence was required on stage. Joan saved the evening.
In Trojan Women, Andromache in desperation had to beat the chest of the enemy officer. When that actor instinctively raised his arm to protect himself, a loud c-r-r-r-a-ck was heard. Joan had broken her arm against the soldier’s stronger arm. But she completed the performance. And in her very next production, she played Shakespeare’s Mariana with her arm was in a sling. Critics wondered at Timothy Mayer’s directorial concept, especially since the plot depended on the two main female characters being mistaken for one another in bed. But Joan pulled it off.
In Laurence Senelick’s production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, at the Loeb, Joan played the evil and insatiable Livia—and was as convincing a villainess as she had been an ingénue. Friend and fellow cast member Lloyd Schwartz remembers the two of them walking through Harvard Yard when someone came running up to them excitedly and saying to Joan, “You were great in Women Beware Women—so much better than anyone else in the cast!”
Once her stage career started to wind down, her roles changed. She was well known and admired as “The face of St. Paul’s”—St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Harvard Square, where she was the Office Manager for 23 years, offering pastoral care, and helping to arrange baptisms, weddings, and funerals. A huge retirement party celebrated her work there. More recently, she was a resident at the VNA Senior Community in Somerville, a motherly figure popular among peers and staff. She is remembered as having been always dressed to the nines.
Her daughter, Katie Dunton, called her “a Lady”–wearing dresses and skirts, no trousers (she used the word “trousers” or “slacks” instead of “pants”). “Definitely no cursing (though ‘crappy’was OK).” And she pronounced the word “tomato” the English way (to-MAH-to). She was irked when a newspaper columnist said she liked to go with her daughter for a hot dog when she actually said “frankfurter.”
Joan loved crime dramas so much she watched every season of Law & Order at least three times because “You always see something new,” and she particularly liked the nuances of Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance and his trademark bending sideways for a different perspective of the crime scene. She also loved to do calligraphy and draw. “For someone without training,” her daughter says, “she was pretty good!”
She was hilarious, everyone who knew her would admit. “The funniest person I knew,” Katie declares. “Even in her sickbed when she couldn’t carry on a conversation, she would still make such expressions no words were necessary, and poked fun at herself when we played guessing games because she couldn’t remember a word. I laughed my head off while she made funny faces at me and waited for me to guess correctly.”
“And she was generous. She would take anything someone was giving away and give it to someone else in need.”
Joan Tolentino Dunton is survived by her husband Dave, her daughter Katie and her partner Donna Mayo, her sister Carol Hurst, and her brother and sister-in-law Richard and Jane Tolentino.
Now that the final curtain has descended, Joan Tolentino will still be taking her bows.
A visitation will be held on Saturday, January 12 from 9AM to 10:30 AM in St. Eulalia Church 50 Ridge St. Winchester followed by a funeral mass at 11AM. Immediately following the mass there will be a pot luck collation in the church hall. Alcohol will not be served. Relatives and friends kindly invited. Joan requested that everyone wear bright colors to her funeral. Interment will be held in Mass National Cemetery, Bourne on Friday, February 15 at 1pm.
Joan’s family would like to gratefully thank and acknowledge that this obituary was written by a long time family friend Dr. Lloyd Schwartz, U Mass Boston professor, widely published poet, NPR's Fresh Air commentator & Pulitzer Prize winner.