Theatre yesterday and today



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In looking over some of these columns which I’ve been writing for three-quarters of the past year, I realized that I’ve given a lot of love to character actors — perhaps without enough spread around for character actresses. With the piece I wrote for Dianne Wiest two days ago, I felt motivated today to write another about an actress whose career is right for reassessment or reclamation. Then it dawned on me: what about someone who’s ripe for recognition, especially considering she first received acknowledgement of her talents back in the mid-1950s?

This would be Lois Smith, who is having somewhat of a revival of late (or a late revival), since turning eighty-six a few months ago. In Michael Almereyda's Marjorie Prime, presented Off-Broadway in December of 2015, Smith’s performance was a revelation for all who saw it (myself included). Then, this past January, her repeat of the role in its movie version (directed by the playwright) was the talk of the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. It appears that the film is going to be rolled out later this year during the time the Academy Award nominations are being “primed.” There is no question the film’s producers feel that for Marjorie Prime, Lois Smith might be in for the sort of recognition that often comes to actors who have not only persevered, but gotten better with age.

Lois Smith (2017) at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

It would appear that way with Smith. A recent guest-starring role on the FX TV series The Americans should have won her a Guest Actress Emmy Award. For some inexplicable reason, she wasn’t even nominated. But for anyone that saw her performance as an old woman caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who must pay for that inconvenience with her life, it was a tour de force. Though that is nothing knew for those who have seen this actress’s work on stage or screen for the past sixty-plus years. Many first discovered what Smith could do with a small role in 1955’s East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan. Even though she was all of twenty-five at this point, she had already been appearing in the early days of live television on prestige evening broadcasts such as Studio One and in the daytime on live soap operas like Love of Life — as well as on Broadway.

In November, 1952 — the same month she turned twenty-two — Smith made her Broadway debut in Ronald Alexander’s Time Out for Ginger, as the title character’s younger sister, Jeannie. The play, starring Melvyn Douglas, was a big hit that resonated with post-war audiences who empathized with harassed dads who didn’t understand their teenage girls. In what would be the first of many Playbills to bare her name, Smith’s biography states how “In her own words, she best expresses her inherent and natural love for the theatre: ‘I just began going on any available stage from the time I first learned how to walk.’”

1952’s Time Out For Ginger, Lois Smith’s Broadway Debut

Her next two Broadway shows were with the proclaimed First Lady of the America Theatre, Helen Hayes. First in Joshua Logan’s The Wisteria Trees, and then in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, taking on the role of Laura to Hayes’s Amanda. It did not go unnoticed that Smith was the standout in this production, taking some of the limelight away from the star wattage of its leading player, Miss Hayes. With its small cast of four consisting of three members of the Actors Studio, all of whom worked in a style antithetical to Miss Hayes, led her to claim that “I blame [the Actors Studio] for many of the things wrong with the American theatre then and now.”

Helen Hayes, James Daly and Lois Smith in the 1956 City Center revival of The Glass Menagerie.

East of Eden marked a prominent film debut not only for Smith, but for James Dean as well. It was released in April of 1955 (only six months before Dean was killed in a car accident) and resulted in his being launched into ethereal star status with two big films released posthumously: Rebel Without a Cause, one month after his death, and Giant, which he died while shooting, brought out the following year. In researching this piece, I found a screen test for the young Dean and Smith for East of Eden, that is mesmerizing, particularly because it appears to have been shot without sound. Look at the behavior that is caught here between these two young actors, and it may be possible that no acting was going on whatsoever. You can watch it here:

“Oh my god, yes,” laughs Lois Smith. “What was James Dean like? has been echoed through the years,” she told author James Grissom in his fine book Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog. “What was he really like?,” recalled Smith. “He seemed to me slightly withdrawn, suspicious, like a farmboy who was on his back porch, and now he’s in this movie for the first time, and the leading character. It’s a lot to put up with. There wasn’t any big aura.”

It’s impossible to go through Smith’s entire career in a short essay on such a full life, though mention should be made of her outstanding performances in other films that include such diverse fare as the drama Five Easy Pieces and the disaster-flick Twister. On television, she has lent her talents to significant roles on shows like ER and True Blood. And, of course, the theatre, with her work in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company earning her two Tony Award nominations, one for 1990’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and another for a 1996 revival of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. I honestly predicted she was going to win for both those shows, as they were each sterling performances.

As for what the heck Marjorie Prime is all about, it may be best not to reveal the twists and turns of its story. Suffice it to say that its general plot has to do with a woman who is granted extra time to spend with an idealized and younger version of her deceased husband, by way of a future technology yet to be invented. Opposite a strong cast featuring Jon Hamm, Gena Davis and Tim Robbins, the rumors are swirling that this might prove to bring Lois Smith an honor she may have thought had long passed by: an Oscar.

It wouldn’t be the first time an older actor finds newfound relevance: when Christopher Plummer received his first Academy Award in 2012 for Beginners, he mentioned in his acceptance speech that he and Oscar started out at the same time: both birthed in 1929 and eighty-three by that time. May Lois Smith find herself in a similar mode, appreciated and admired later this year and next, for a talent that show no signs of slowing down.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available now, exclusively for sale by Griffith Moon Publishing: