Her father is said to have worked on the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire, Britain's fighter aircraft. Barbara Bryne also was a spitfire in her own right — but of the stage.
Bryne, the British American actor who delighted generations of fans with her commanding performances as Queens Victoria and Elizabeth at the Guthrie Theater and maternal figures on Broadway, died Tuesday of natural causes at Jones Harrison Senior Living in Minneapolis.
She was 94.
"She was a small lady with a huge talent — one of a kind," said former Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling, who directed Bryne in numerous shows at the Minneapolis theater where images of her in action are embossed on the exterior and interior of the building.
Dowling first worked with Bryne at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival, created by the Guthrie's founder, Tyrone Guthrie. She played a Rude Mechanical in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the beginning of a decadeslong partnership with the director that included "H.M.S. Pinafore," "Macbeth," "Jane Eyre," "His Girl Friday" and "Pygmalion."
Under Dowling's purview, Bryne also performed in "Pride and Prejudice," "Three Sisters" and "A Christmas Carol," showing her range in dramatic, comic and musical roles. She famously descended in a balloon as Queen Victoria in "The Pirates of Penzance" in 2004.
"One of the greatest things about Barbara was her attention to detail and her absolute insistence on textual accuracy," said Dowling. "She had a precision about her work that was beautiful to watch."
Bryne also was a favorite of Stephen Sondheim, for whom she originated roles in two of his Broadway shows: "Sunday in the Park With George" and "Into the Woods." In "Sunday," she played an art critic and an older mother. In "Woods," she played the main character's mother.
As they were prepping "Woods" for Broadway, Bryne slipped in Grand Central station and broke her patella, recalled daughter Susan Spence of Minneapolis. Sondheim rewrote the role to explain the cane that she needed to have during her performance. But that was not enough.
"The problem was when she dies in the show, she was supposed to fall over but she couldn't do it," said Spence. "So, she came up with her passing away standing up and staring straight ahead."
For her turns in New York, Bryne was memorialized by famous cartoonist Al Hirschfeld in several drawings, including a solo one for "Entertaining Mr. Sloane," where Bryne's performance as landlady Kath garnered a Drama Desk nomination.
She was born Barbara Birkinshaw in England on April 1, 1929, a daughter of inventor Edward Bernard Birkinshaw and homemaker Winifred Cairns. She changed her name to Bryne because she wanted to make it unique, Spence said.
During the London blitz in World War II, Bryneworked as a teenage scout to help keep citizens safe, blowing a whistle to notify people whenever she saw or heard German rockets coming in.
"Everybody would scatter into the bomb shelters," said Spence. "The rockets used to run out of fuel and just drop. She lost many friends."
After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she and her husband, TV producer Denny Spence, moved to Canada, where friends were founding a performing arts company. From there she made her way to the Stratford Festival. In 1970, she landed at the Guthrie at the invitation of then artistic director Michael Langham.
Bryne appeared in more than 60 productions over five decades at the Guthrie. In the mid-1980s, she took to Broadway and also made films, including "Amadeus" and "The Bostonians."
Bryne returned to the Guthrie for Dowling's tenure, which began in the mid-1990s. Peter Michael Goetz, her frequent scene partner at the theater, said she was probably the most talented artist he ever worked with in his career.
"Acting with her was like performing with an animal onstage," said Goetz. "She had this quiet wonder and she underplayed everything, which meant that all the focus would always go to her."
Bryne and Goetz had some unscripted moments onstage, including once during a matinee for "Arsenic and Old Lace." Two late-arriving patrons walked up to Goetz and Bryne onstage as they were performing and asked for help with their seats.
Goetz obliged, taking the ladies ever so gingerly to their seats while Bryne, not wanting to be seen cracking up, left the stage, her shoulders going up and down as she repressed her laughter. She came back to the stage when he did and the show resumed as if nothing had happened.
"She was the real English grand dame of the theater," said Goetz. "Just amazing."
Bryne's husband died in January 2018. A joint memorial will be held sometime in June for the couple, said Spence, their only survivor.
"Barbara was an Old World actor who didn't take shortcuts," said Dowling. "She was dead-letter perfect in her roles."