Barbara M. Bannon, theater critic for Tribune, dies at 79

(Photo by Salt Lake Tribune) Barbara M. Bannon

Barbara M. Bannon, an arts patron and critic who reviewed theatrical productions in Utah for four decades, died Thursday at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. She was 79.

Her brother, Michael Bannon, said Bannon died from pancreatic cancer.

Bannon was a theater critic for a number of Utah publications over the decades and began writing reviews for The Salt Lake Tribune in 2004. She also was a film aficionado and edited the Sundance Film Festival’s program guide for 26 years.

Bannon’s last review for The Tribune was in February when she gave compliments to a comedy at Salt Lake Acting Company titled “HIR.” Over the decades she gave her opinion on everything from elegant productions at the Utah Shakespeare Festival to modern classics performed by acting companies in Salt Lake City to community theater musicals.

Her reviews often focused not so much on whether the actors delivered their lines well or hit the right notes as on the emotions their performances evoked. And she had a deep vocabulary to describe such talent.

In a 2011 review of “Richard III” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Bannon judged the actor playing the title character by his capacity to portray evil.

“Not surprisingly, Elijah Alexander's performance drives this production,” Bannon wrote. “His Richard is a whirling dervish of diabolical intensity, obsessed and maniacal. Like the proverbial dog with the bone, he fastens onto each murder and betrayal, and that energy propels him to the next one.”

For all her deep knowledge of the theater, Bannon, who had a master’s degree in speech and drama from Catholic University, championed local talent. One of the characters she promoted was Sister Dottie, played by actor Charles Lynn Frost in multiple productions in Salt Lake City, the Mormon mother of a gay son who unwittingly pokes fun at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Utah while defending both her faith and her son.

In a 2009 review of "The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon,” Bannon explained how Frost was able to pull off the character in a state with a Latter-day Saint majority population.

“What sells the material — a strange fusion of tongue-in-cheek jabs at the Mormon church, a focus on the serious issue of ostracism faced by gay LDS children and their families, and the call for Mormon women to be leaders — is the force of Dottie's personality as portrayed by Frost. He has the audience's complete attention from the opening moments when he offers cushions and snacks to make sure everyone is comfortable.”

Ellen Weist a former Tribune reporter and editor, said Bannon was a precise writer who would write her reviews in longhand before editing them on a computer. In her last year, Weist said, Bannon planned her cancer treatments around her theater-watching schedule.

“She had a remarkable institutional knowledge and authority about theater and film — and through the years, was incredibly dedicated to arts coverage in the Tribune,” Weist said in an email. “More than that, though, she’s made her mark in the sheer number of acting and writing careers she boosted through her encouragement. I’ve read scores of tributes to her generosity and curiosity on social media today.”

Bannon was born Jan. 3, 1939, in Stamford, Conn. After she earned her master’s degree in 1963, she taught English at Regina High School in Hyattsville, Md.

One of her students there was Mercedes Ruehl, who in 1992 won an Academy Award for best supporting actress. In an interview that year with The Washington Post, Ruehl described her high school acting days and mentioned Bannon.

“She would bring us to see the theater groups and have them come over to our auditorium,” Ruehl told the newspaper.

Michael Bannon said his sister arrived in Utah in 1968 to work for the ski resort at Alta. She held jobs there as well as for the town of Alta. In 1977, she went to work for Utah Holiday Magazine. She wrote about theater and later became managing editor of the magazine, which ceased publication in 1993.

Bannon spent a number of years as a freelance theater critic before writing regularly for The Tribune. She also served in various posts with the American Theatre Critics Association based in San Francisco.

Bannon is survived by her brother.

A prayer service will be 6 p.m. Friday at St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center, 170 S. University St. (about 1400 East) in Salt Lake City. Mass will follow at 6:30 p.m. followed by what Michael Bannon called a celebration of his sister’s life.