Signature Smith

Signature Smith Whether as leading lady or supporting player, Lois Smith's hallmark has always been her compelling portraits of women of all ages.
Lois Smith
Lois Smith Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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A life in the theatre was launched when Lois Smith clocked into Time Out for Ginger, Ronald Alexander's amiably archetypal family comedy, and she's still alive and ticking 55 years later. "That was the first one," she sighs sunnily — and she doesn't just mean her first Main Stem effort: "That was my first job, my first job as a professional actor."

She arrived, full-born on Broadway, as one of Melvyn Douglas and Polly Rowles' three teenage daughters — the one in the middle, between Mary Hartig and Nancy Malone — the one who wants to become an actress. In fact, she's last seen in that show trooping off to her high school play, dressed (prophetically?) as Queen Victoria. "We ran all season, and it ended with what still is a treasured memory for me. The last night we did it, after I had this little scene with my parents and went off to my play, Melvyn Douglas threw a lovely ad-lib after me: 'She's going to be a great actress, that kid.' Isn't that the dearest thing!"

True, too. "That kid" now is edging toward her own diamond jubilee as an actress, having systematically checked off The Ages of (wo)Man on stage, screen and television. "That's what happens. You start out a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother of a young child. After The Grapes of Wrath, I was in Chicago with [adapter-director] Frank Galati, and I said, 'Now I'm offered parts of mothers of grown sons!'"

Currently, her grown son is a young priest who comes home to her protective wing after he is forced to leave the church under a kind of cloud, in Kate Fodor's 100 Saints You Should Know, world-premiering at Playwrights Horizons. "My role isn't the leading role," she announces frontally, if almost apologetically, at the top of the interview — as if the size of a role might, or could, impose an inhibition on her imaginative resources. The leading role, she says, is the rectory cleaning woman who finds herself compelled to pursue the priest home. "I've done three readings of the play for Kate. At one of the talk-backs, she said that it's a play about one person falling away from faith and another person searching for faith. It's a lovely piece."

This is her first trip to Off-Broadway's 42nd St. since she took The Trip to Bountiful at Signature Theatre Company a block away. Her portrayal of Horton Foote's runaway, homebound granny was a thing of beauty, and she harvested a field of honors for it.

"Five," she says, holding up one hand and spreading those fingers apart: the Obie, the Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the Lortel Award and the Kingsley-Evans Award.

"At the Drama Desk Awards, Horton came up to me and said, 'Well, you won 'em all, didn't you?' I said, 'Horton, I won everything I was up for — and a few others, besides.'" And that may not be the end of it, either: "We're going to do Bountiful in Chicago at the Goodman. We rehearse in February — two weeks in New York — and then take it there. We'll play in March-April, and happily we'll be using the same cast that we had here."

It was in Chicago, with Steppenwolf in 1988, that she started her two flying runs at Tony Awards. "They needed a Ma Joad," she says. "First, they were going to come to New York and do auditions, then they just called and said could I come there instead. I could."

Gary Sinese, who played her son Tom in The Grapes of Wrath and her son-in-law in the TV movie "Truman," directed her other Tony-nominated performance — the demented matriarch in the 1996 Broadway revival of Buried Child, Sam Shepard's 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning play. "Gary drove us very hard in the first production in Chicago. He put us in a kind of straitjacket, but, even at the time, I understood that if he hadn't been so clear about the dynamics as he understood them and just laid them in, we would have been very lost indeed — then, later, he said that there was room to develop."

Smith might have won the Tony, had her Trip to Bountiful docked on Broadway, but it didn't. The Tony winner for The Trip to Bountiful (in its original 1953 Broadway production) was Jo Van Fleet, who then won an Oscar as Smith's brothel boss in Smith's film debut, "East of Eden." Yes, all of her scenes in "Eden" were opposite that new kid on the Hollywood block, James Dean, and directed by Elia Kazan, who urged her to audition for the Actors Studio.

"I probably had auditioned when I first got to New York. I think I auditioned with a former classmate from the University of Washington in Seattle — Robert Culp, actually — and we didn't get in. Later, I auditioned with another UW classmate, doing Paddy Chayefsky's Middle of the Night, and got in. Boy, that was a long time ago."

But it was the golden time to be an actor in New York. "There was a lot of TV in New York — television drama, not episodic but plays: Kraft Theatre, U.S. Steel Hour, Robert Montgomery Presents. These were new plays each week — can you imagine it? — a play. Except they were live back then. They were rehearsed like plays, then performed from beginning to end — it was terrifying, but that's the way it was, and that's how you did it. You had a sense of everybody working with fresh excitement to do plays. You tell that to young people today — how can they even believe? It's so unlike anything we have now."