Just to get this out of the way, Ann Dowd ’74 assures us that no teacher at Williston served as the inspiration for Aunt Lydia, the brutal re-education instructor in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a role for which Ann won the supporting actress Emmy this past September. “No, no,” she says with a laugh. “You’ll be happy to know. No one at Williston.”
As for the Catholic school nuns that taught her in Holyoke prior to her enrollment at Williston in her junior year, that’s another matter. “None of them, of course, resembled Lydia in her extreme views or in her cruelty,” Ann is quick to note. “However, what I did learn from them, which transferred easily to Lydia, was a sense of purpose and commitment, and that when you have a job or a task that has been assigned to you, you stop when the job is complete, and not before.”
It’s a lesson in persistence that Ann herself has applied outside of the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale in a film, television, and stage career that has spanned more than 30 years and earned her countless accolades. The Huffington Post recently called her “peak TV’s greatest secret weapon,” noting that she “seems to bottle all the necessary elements of prestige entertainment into one body.” Indeed, she had been nominated for two Emmys last fall, the second for guest actress in the HBO drama The Leftovers. And it all began at Williston. “That’s where I really fell in love with theater,” she says. “I will never forget that experience there, and what that did for me. It was Ellis Baker ’51 and Dick Gregory, and the summer theater there, all of it.” Ann ticks off the shows she did: Tea and Sympathy, Guys and Dolls, She Stoops to Conquer, A View from the Bridge… “It was fabulous. I said to my mother—we were just talking about Williston—they were hands-down two of the most important years of my education.”
Ann’s father had died in her senior year, and she had told him that after Williston she would study to be a doctor. In her large Irish Catholic family, she recalls, “theater was loved and respected, but surely not as a choice of one’s life’s work. No question there.” But forgetting theater was not so easy. “I went to Holy Cross College and was in pre-med for four years, and the first thing I signed up for was an acting class, to be perfectly honest. Because I just couldn’t let that go. The feelings that developed were too deep at Williston, and I will be forever grateful for that kind of training.”
After college, Ann put off medical school to pursue her MFA in acting at DePaul University’s Goodman School of Drama in Chicago. There she met her husband, writer and actor Lawrence Arancio. They were married in 1984, have three children, and now live in New York City. Ann received her first television part in 1985 and has not looked back, appearing in more than 30 films, 40 television programs, and numerous stage productions in Chicago and on Broadway.
We suspect even Aunt Lydia would be impressed.