Back on stage, Smith chooses Chekhov

October 02, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

When Lois Smith was appearing in "Escape from Happiness" at Center Stage two seasons ago, artistic director Irene Lewis asked what other roles she would most like to play.

At the top of her list was Madame Ranyevskaya, the aristocratic Russian matriarch in Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" -- the role she's now playing in Center Stage's season-opening production.

"Had she not wanted to do the role, I don't think I would have selected the play because there are certain roles that hinge on certain people," says Lewis, who is directing the production.

Casting Smith proved pivotal in another way as well. "Even in having the auditions for this show, people came in just because they heard she was going to be in it," the director says.

Who is this actress, whose talent not only influenced the choice of play, but also the participation of other actors?

While she has extensive theatrical credits, Smith marvels that passers-by still recognize her as the actress who played Jack Nicholson's sister in the 1970 movie, "Five Easy Pieces." She received more recent national recognition, and a Tony nomination, for playing Ma Joad in the Steppenwolf Theater Company's production of "The Grapes of Wrath," which was broadcast on PBS in 1991.

Her gray hair piled on top of her head in gentle curls, Smith arrived at the theater on a recent morning before a rehearsal wearing loose khaki-colored slacks and a jacket decorated with embroidered plants and plant names. The jacket, she explained, was one of her costumes in the movie "Green Card," in which she played Andie MacDowell's mother.

When Center Stage audiences saw Smith in "Escape from Happiness," she was the mother in a violent, working-class Canadian household. Now she's a 19th-century Russian grande dame who is about to lose her precious family estate.

These characters "could not be more different," she acknowledges. "They're certainly not only close to 100 years apart in time and half-way across the world in space -- so the cultures are very different -- but they're from opposite sides of the tracks."

Smith feels, however, that the two women share a quality that also characterizes Ma Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath": "They're all women of strength."

This is Smith's first "Cherry Orchard," but she is a devoted Chekhov fan, and her credits include productions of "Uncle Vanya" and "The Seagull." "Chekhov's characters are always full and whole -- filled with mixed and conflicting thoughts and feelings, as we all are. So, most actors find it a great privilege to work on Chekhov," she says. "It's the size and nature of the spirit of this man."

Smith feels movie roles rarely have this sense of wholeness. But she also believes one medium can feed the other. "Maybe the detail and intimacy of the camera teaches you something, and the live presence on the stage teaches you something," she suggests.

One week after "The Cherry Orchard" closes at Center Stage, Smith will fly to California to begin filming "How to Make an American Quilt," with Australian director Jocelyn Moorhouse. The film will be produced by Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment.

Smith will play a member of a quilting circle. Because her character is also a swimmer, she's being coached in swimming at the Downtown Athletic Club during the run of "The Cherry Orchard." And because the star of the movie, Winona Ryder, is currently in Baltimore (filming a movie with the working title "Boys"), the costume designer for "American Quilt" flew into town to meet with them last week.

Smith is already familiar with quilting. Her daughter, Moon Elizabeth -- who works as a midwife in Philadelphia -- is a quilter. One of the actress' prize possessions is a Sunbonnet Sue quilt made by her grandmother.

The youngest of six children, Smith was born in Topeka, Kan., but moved to Seattle with her family when she was 11. She credits her father with sparking her interest in theater. "When I was very small, my father directed plays in the church. I'm sure that's how it started," says the actress, who frequently appeared in her father's productions.

She went on to perform in school plays, and majored in drama from 1948 to 1950 at the University of Washington, before moving to New York. Her Broadway debut came two years later in a play called "Time Out for Ginger," in which she played Melvyn Douglas' daughter, a teen-ager who, appropriately enough, was appearing in a school play. On Smith's final night in the show, Douglas ad-libbed the line, "She's going to be a great actress, that kid."

The soft-spoken Smith only reluctantly agrees to tell this story for print. But, of course, Douglas' prediction proved accurate.

Acting isn't Smith's only vocation, however. She's also written a full-length play, "All There Is," a domestic mystery that has received several workshop productions.

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