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A deep dive into the Tony race for "Best Actress in a Play"

by new contributor J.B. 

Tatiana Maslany, Glenda Jackson, and Annette Bening are just a few of the many acclaimed actresses in the running for Best Actress nominations on Broadway this season

In recent years, the Tony category of Best Actress in a Play has featured some of the most impressive line-ups of nominees of any major award show. Don’t believe me? Since 2015, 18 women have been nominated for the award. Of those 18, six are Oscar winners (four of whom are two-time winners), five are Oscar nominees, two are Emmy winners, one is a Golden Globe winner, one is a BAFTA winner, and one is a four-time Tony nominee who has only appeared in one Broadway production for which she was not nominated for a Tony. The five most recent recipients of the “Triple Crown of Acting” distinction have all won a Tony in this category within the past ten years. That trend continues this year, with a well-decorated and very star-studded group of women, including bonafide legends of both stage and screen, vying for spots in the race. But who will be nominated? Who should be nominated? And who will win?

Here’s a closer look at who’s in contention for nominations this coming Tuesday, and which factors will weigh in their favor and against it...


Annette Bening, All My Sons

Pros: Venerable, famously under-awarded actress, lending genuine star power to meaty role in one of Arthur Miller’s best plays.

Cons: Overshadowed by co-stars, show opened recently/hasn’t found a groove yet, show/performance not always as fresh or exciting as others this season.


Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman

Pros: Juicy, Olivier-winning role in the best new play of the year, dynamic performance with wide emotional range.

Cons: A large ensemble cast may make it difficult to stand out as an individual, competition from better-known actresses.


Glenda Jackson, King Lear

Pros: Legendary actor, legendary role, gender-swap intrigue, recent Tony-winner (awards bodies love back to back nominations), how many more opportunities will we have to reward her for a remarkable career?

Cons: Lackluster production, recent Tony-winner ('we just gave her one, does she need another?')


Cherry Jones, The Lifespan of a Fact

Pros: Beloved theater actress, Tony-favorite, good role in one of the better original plays of the year.

Cons: Role skews supporting, production closed a while ago and lacked buzz.  


Tatianna Maslany, Network

Pros: Recent Emmy-winner known for versatility and range, previous Oscar-winning role, also appeared off-Broadway this season in Mary Page Marlowe to critical acclaim.

Cons: Polarizing production, opened a while ago, role skews supporting, it’s the Bryan Cranston-show.


Elaine May, The Waverly Gallery

Pros: Entertainment legend, under-awarded, well-received performance in a well-received play.

Cons: Closed a while ago.


Janet McTeer, Bernhardt/Hamlet

Pros: Well-liked previous Tony-winner, good role in a smart show, playing a famous actress.

Cons: Smaller production, lack of buzz, closed a while ago, competition from bigger names.


Laurie Metcalf, Hillary and Clinton

Pros: Revered performer making a real case for herself as the best theater actress of her generation, recent Tony-winner, powerhouse performance.

Cons: Polarizing, somewhat confusing play, some will be turned off by its theme/subject matter.


Keri Russell, Burn This

Pros: Well-liked industry veteran fresh off a critically-acclaimed, Emmy-snubbed run on The Americans, buzzy production, previous Tony-winning role.

Cons: Lack of theater experience and it shows, play not for everyone, it’s the Adam Driver-show.


Heidi Schreck, What the Constitution Means to Me

Pros: Well-reviewed performance in a thoughtful, relevant, crowd-pleasing play she also wrote, which is also a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in drama.

Cons: Political material, competition from better-known actresses.


Kerry Washington, American Son

Pros: Well-liked Emmy-nominee, acclaimed performance in a timely, successful play with a lot of celebrity support.

Cons: Political material, closed a while ago.




Will be nominated: Laura Donnelly, Annette Bening, Glenda Jackson, Elaine May, and Laurie Metcalf

Bening, Jackson, May and Metcalf feel like locks at this point. Heidi Schreck could very well sneak into the fifth slot for her work in What The Constitution Means To Me, but in a crowded field, I suspect voters will opt to reward her for her writing rather than her performance, and Donnelly will claim the last spot for her Olivier-winning turn in a show that is more traditional Tony fare.   

Will win: Elaine May

Could win: Glenda Jackson

Jackson will give her a stiff run for the statue, but I think Elaine May will prevail both because of her stature within the industry and the fact that voters just handed Jackson a Tony last year. 


A few more notes...

Washington’s and May’s performances I missed and cannot speak to, and Schrek’s I will be seeing next week. But with respect to those I have seen:

Maslany and Russell, two of my personal favorite actresses working today, had the misfortune of appearing in lesser plays of the season. Neither of their performances really worked, but the blame is squarely on the material. Bening, similarly, whom I love and admire, left me wanting more. I couldn’t help wondering if another actress (say, Laurie Metcalf) might have done something rawer or more interesting with the role. She hadn’t fully found this character yet when I saw this very early in previews.

Jackson gave an incredibly sophisticated performance as King Lear. But the production was, forgive me Father Shakespeare, a snooze. Despite featuring three women playing iconic Shakespearean roles written for men, numerous people of color playing roles written for white people, and a deaf actor playing a role written for a hearing person -- all of which in theory should have lent some modernity and intrigue to the play -- the production isn't compelling. With the exception of the oft-remarkable Jayne Houdyshell (who does deserve Tony recognition for her performance as the Earl of Gloucester), the cast doesn't breathe new life into the characters. Perhaps breathing new life into 500-year old source material isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it absolutely can be done. Plus, Jackson JUST won this award last year, and has already won every award there is to win. Let's spread the wealth.

Which leads us to Cherry Jones, one of only six actors in history to be nominated in this category five or more times, and one of only ten to have won the award two or more times. She doesn't have a lot to do in The Lifespan of a Fact so I'd prefer to see some less familiar faces make it in this year. For example:

Laura Donnelly, a very fine actress and the emotional center of the best new play on Broadway this season, gives a richly nuanced, affecting performance in The Ferryman. It should be noted that she beat out literal stage royalty to win the Olivier Award for Best Actress in London last year: 13-time Olivier-nominee and 4-time winner Imelda Staunton playing Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 8-time Tony-nominee and 6-time winner Audra McDonald playing Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, and Olivier-winner Lesley Manville doing an astounding Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night. If she’s not at least nominated for a Tony for this performance, it will be tremendously disappointing.  

McTeer and Metcalf, also deserve nominations for their strong performances in plays I was very, very excited for this season but ultimately liked, rather than loved. Both former winners of this category, these two know what they are doing on stage. There is rhythm and presence and a kind of non-self-consciousness that successful stage acting requires that McTeer and Metcalf both have and understand in a way that Russell, for example, just doesn’t (yet, anyway). 



  • If McTeer and Metcalf are both nominated, it will be the first time two nominees who have previously won Tony Awards for playing the same character (Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House / A Doll’s House Part 2) have faced off in this category.

  • If Glenda Jackson is nominated, she will become the 7th actor in history to be nominated in this category five or more times. If Jones is nominated, she will become the 5th actor in history to be nominated in this category six or more times.

  • If nominated, this will be Elaine May’s first ever Tony nomination. Her former comedy partner, Mike Nichols, has won a total of nine Tonys, and holds the record for most wins in the category of Best Direction of a Play, with six.

  • If Metcalf is nominated, she will become the first actor to ever receive Tony nominations in four consecutive years (a record she may beat again in 2020 given her recently announced role in Scott Rudin’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

  • If Jackson and Metcalf are both nominated, it will be the first time two actors who each won Tony awards the previous year for the same show (Three Tall Women) will face off in this category.

  • If Donnelly wins, she will become the first actor from Northern Ireland to win a Tony in this category, the youngest actor to win in this category since 2012, and the first actor to win this category in her 30s since 2001.

  • If Schreck wins, she will become the first actor in ten years to win a Tony in this category for a play written by a woman, and the first ever to win the award for a play she also wrote.

  • If Jackson wins, she will become only the second female actor ever to win a Tony for a role in a Shakespeare play, and the first to not share the award (Katharine Cornell, who won a Tony for playing Cleopatra in 1948 at the second Tony Award ceremony, shared the award with two co-winners, Judith Anderson and Jessica Tandy). She will also become the first actor to win this category for a role written for a man, and the first to actor to win a Tony for playing the character King Lear.  

  • If Jackson wins, she will become be the first actor to win back-to-back Tonys in this category, and the seventh actor ever to win back-to-back Tonys. If Metcalf wins, she will become the first actor to win Tonys in three consecutive years.

  • If Jackson wins, she will tie Angela Lansbury as the second-oldest actor to win a competitive Tony at 83 (behind only Cecily Tyson, who won at 88 six years ago), and will become and the only actor to ever win two Tony Awards in their 80s. If May wins, she will surpass Lansbury to become the second oldest actor to win a Tony, at 87.

  • If Russell wins for her performance in Burn This, the role of Anna Mann will become one of seven for which two separate actors have won the Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Play (Joan Allen original won for the role in 1988). Assuming Jackson is also nominated, both wins will have taken place in a year in which Glenda Jackson was nominated for a Shakespearian role (she was nominated in 1988 for her performance as Lady Macbeth).

  • If Jackson, Metcalf, Jones, May, or Bening wins, it will be the 5th consecutive year in which the award goes to an actor over the age of 60.

  • If Bening wins, she will become to first actor to win a Tony in this category for a role in an Arthur Miller play.

  • It is not uncommon for an actor to win an Oscar for a previous Tony-winning role, whether the Tony was won by that same performer or another. It is far less common for the reverse to happen. If Maslany wins, however, she will accomplish that this year—winning a Tony for a role for which Faye Dunaway won an Oscar in 1976.  

This year’s Tony nominations will be announced on April 30, and the ceremony will air on June 9.

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Reader Comments (11)

Elaine May must win.
Maslany is miscast in Network, might work better with Michelle Dockery like in West End.

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

i love trivia; thanks for this

note - tatiana maslany definitely won't be nominated in lead as she's billed below the title and wasn't petitioned to be moved up by the nominating committee

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Interesting. I thought Metcalf was the frontrunner again. She's always great and you're all so willing to vindicate HRC at any chance.

In my world it would be Glenda Jackson without any doubt.

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Maslany was not good in Network. A total misreading of the character IMO. That whole production was a mess too. Cranston was wonderful though.

I really do hope this goes to May. An artist of her caliber would be so deserving of this recognition. One of the greats

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I still haven't seen Glenda Jackson as King Lear. She was incandescent in Three Tall Women though.

But Elaine May -- she was touching, funny, vulnerable, irritating and sublime in The Waverly Gallery and I think she may have the edge over Jackson to take the Tony. Happy if either Jackson, Metcalf or May gets the award.

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

May and Metcalf are definitely in, while Donnelly and Jackson are likely (but not quite locks). It's Bening vs. Schreck for the final slot and, with the latter eligible in Best Play, I suspect the former makes the cut.

May wins, barring HILLARY AND CLINTON making a strong showing beyond a Metcalf nom (odds are, she winds up the lone nominee for it).

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

Rooting for Elaine May.

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

I loved the waverly gallery. elaine may was fantastic and absolutely wrecked me, but that whole cast was tremendous as well. Joan Allen was phenomenal in a supporting role. I hope she gets a nom as well.

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Wow, this is exceptional trivia, even for TFE. Nice work.

Given she's just been nominated for the Pulitzer, I think Schreck will most likely be nominated for both acting and writing. That show is *hot* right now. All My Sons was not terribly well-received; not sure that they're going to go with this role for a nom (could be wrong). Strangely, Bening's work has never been too popular onstage. Linney, Blanchett, Metcalf, and McDormand are screen goddesses who take off onstage; Bening never has.

For the win, it's just gotta be May, right? As was the case with Tyson a few years ago, who doesn't want to watch this legend up onstage accepting an award for a wonderfully received performance in an ideal role?

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

Elaine May will win. If there's a spoiler, it's Heidi Shreck. Glenda can blame Sam Gold for tanking her chances; what a disaster he's unleashed. Metcalf will contend harder next year with Martha in "Virginia Woolf?". Stacked category, tho.

April 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHoneybee

Glenda Jackson was snubbed!

April 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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