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Eriksmoen: One of the most celebrated stage actresses was born and raised in North Dakota

Jan Maxwell grew up in West Fargo and was active in the theater at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Jan Maxwell in 2014's "The City of Conversation." The off-Broadway role led to her 10th Drama Desk nomination. Photo by Stephanie Berger / Special to The Forum

“One of the most celebrated and critically acclaimed stage actresses” from 1997 to 2013 was born and raised in West Fargo.

Jan Maxwell grew up in a close-knit family and her father, Ralph, could best be described as a Renaissance man, a cultured man who is knowledgeable, educated and proficient in a wide range of fields. Aside from his family, Ralph’s greatest passions were the law, the theater and fitness/health, and all six of his children shared at least one of those passions in their career choices.

Bill and Nancy became lawyers; Susan, a wellness counselor; Peggy, a naturopathic doctor and also a co-owner of a local theatrical company in Minnesota during the 1980s and 1990s; Jan, an actress; and Richard, an avant-garde playwright, director and theater company owner.
Jan Maxwell (seated, right) and her family in July 2014. Photo by Janssen Photography / Courtesy of Nancy Maxwell / Special to The Forum


Jan made her Broadway debut in 1989 as an understudy. She eventually took over the role when the actress left the show. The first time Jan actually started out in an original cast on Broadway was in 1992, and in 2003, received her first acting major award nomination.

Over the next 12 years, she was nominated for 10 Drama Desk Awards and five Tony Awards. Jan was also very active on television, with recurring roles on seven different television series.

Janice Elaine Maxwell was born Nov. 20, 1956, in West Fargo, to Ralph and Liz (Fargusson) Maxwell. At the time, Ralph was acting district attorney for the state of North Dakota and would later serve as a district judge. Liz Maxwell also became an attorney.

Jan attended South Elementary School, L.E. Berger Middle School and West Fargo High School. In high school, Jan participated in track and field events and was very active in chorus and solo singing, but she had not yet made up her mind as to what career path she wanted to pursue.

On a trip to Minneapolis in 1972, Jan’s parents took her to a performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Guthrie Theater, and she referred to this “as a career-defining experience.” She later commented, “I was so bad at academics, I needed something to keep me busy, and that something turned out to be acting.”

In her junior year, Jan landed the role of Calamity Jane in a theatrical production of "Deadwood Dick," and she became convinced that the stage was where she belonged. She graduated from high school in 1975 and, in the fall of that year, enrolled at the Minnesota State University Moorhead (MSUM).

While studying at MSUM, she performed in summer stock with the school’s Straw Hat Players. For five years (1976-1980), Jan did eight shows in 10 weeks every summer, and she later said, “It was true love.”

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Her passion for performing drew her to frequent trips to New York, where she attended theatrical performances. Just shy of graduating from MSUM, Jan received $2,000 from her parents and moved to New York to pursue acting full time.

It did not take long after arriving in the Big Apple for Jan to realize what a daunting task it was to land a role as an actor or actress in a major play, especially since she did not have an agent. She told a reporter, “I think I probably stared at a wall for three months, and I spent the next 10 years being scared.”

Jan began working as a “script reader,” and she also had a job assisting aspiring young thespians with the Paper Bag Players. Not able to earn a sufficient amount of money to be able to survive in New York, Jan began working as a lunchtime hostess at Marvin’s Place, a bar and restaurant on 43rd Street in New York City.

One day in 1983, actor and playwright Robert Emmet became one of her customers. Jan saw his name and said questioningly to him, “Robert Emmet? My dad wrote a play about Robert Emmet [a historic Irish patriot].” At the time, Robert was an actor in "Macbeth" in an off-Broadway production, and Jan attended one of the performances. Soon, a romance began to blossom.

By the mid-1980s, Jan began receiving major roles with some of the more reputable theater companies in the U.S. In December 1985, she played the chambermaid in "The Seagull" with the American National Theater in Washington, D.C. In late 1986, she had the lead role in "Little Shop of Horrors," and in late 1987, Jan played Bette in "The Marriage of Bette and Boo," and Rowena in "Biloxi Blues." All three of these plays were productions of A Contemporary Theater (ACT) in Seattle.

Although Jan had made remarkable progress since her days at MSUM, she was frustrated that she was not able to make a living as an actress, and she still aspired to get a role on Broadway. Jan told a reporter that, after 10 years, “I was ready to leave. I was totally broke. I couldn’t get anywhere and the Actors Fund paid my electric bill and my rent. I gave myself six more months [and] I was just going to be a waitress, save all my money and move. Then, I got this fortune cookie and it said, ‘When winter comes, heaven will rain success upon you.’ For some crazy reason, I put it in my calendar, and that was the day that I got the call to go audition for 'City of Angels,' my first Broadway job.”

Following the audition, Jan was hired to be the understudy to Dee Hoty in the dual role of Carla Haywood and Alaura Kingsley. "City of Angels" is a musical comedy adaptation of the book of the same name by Larry Gelbart, about an author who is working to turn his book into a screenplay. It consists of two stories: the author’s world and the movie he wants made.

Carla is the author’s wife, and Alaura is the villainess in the movie. The play opened at the Virginia Theater on Broadway on Dec. 11, 1989, with Jan as Dee Hoty’s understudy. When Dee left the cast in March 1991 to co-star in "The Will Rogers Follies," Jan took over the roles of Carla and Alaura. In the summer of 1991, Jan left the play to do "Here’s Love: A Miracle on 34th Street" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn.


In 1992, Jan then got the role of Agnes, one of the Mundy sisters in the Broadway play "Dancing at Lughnasa," and Robert Emmet was also a cast member in the play. The last performance was Oct. 25, 1992, and while the actors were onstage for the final curtain call, Robert and Jan were next to each other.

Jan said, “He grabbed my hand and started pushing this thing into it. I thought, ‘What infantile college ritual could this be?’ It was like a peanut. I finally turned to him and, through gritted teeth, said, ‘I’ve got it!’ and stormed offstage wondering, ‘Why would he ruin these final moments we have?’ I looked down, and there was a diamond ring. Of course, I started crying.”

In August 1994, Jan and Robert were married. The real name of Jan’s husband was Robert Lunney, but because there was another actor with the same name, his agent suggested that he use his middle name as his surname. Shortly after the birth of Robert and Jan’s son, William, in 1995, he started using his full name, Robert Emmet Lunney.

In 1994, Jan co-starred with five other actresses in the musical comedy, "Inside Out." The off-Broadway play had a short run, but drew rave reviews from the critics. The next year, Jan gave birth to William and took a couple of years off to care for him.

In 1997, Jan won the role of the widow Kristine Linde in the Henrik Ibsen classic, "A Doll’s House," and for the next 16 years, she was one of the most heralded actresses on Broadway.

We will conclude the story of Jan Maxwell next week.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

Curt Eriksmoen, 'Did You Know That?' columnist
Curt Eriksmoen, Did You Know That? columnist

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