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Heartless - Off-Broadway

Signature Theatre Company presents the world premiere of Sam Shepard's new drama.

Heartless Star Lois Smith on Working With Tennessee Williams, Horton Foote, Sam Shepard & More

Heartless Star Lois Smith on Working With Tennessee Williams, Horton Foote, Sam Shepard & More
Lois Smith
Lois Smith looks back on her stellar 60-year stage career.

Decades before vampire fans fell in love with Lois Smith as “Gran” Adele Stackhouse on True Blood, this great American stage actress was starring in plays by Williams, O’Neill, Chekhov, Foote, Shepard and more. At 81, the two-time Tony nominee remains very much in demand, and is currently starring in the world premiere of Shepard’s latest family drama, Heartless, at Signature Theatre Company. Buckling down to the task of choosing six Role Call entries from nearly 60 years of work on stages across America, Smith reminisces about “playing around” during a film test with James Dean on the set of East of Eden [watch the breathtaking clip at the end of this article] and reflects on how her Midwestern roots fueled her stage roles.

Role That Was Most Rewarding
The Trip to Bountiful [2005; Obie, Drama Desk & Lucille Lortel Awards] was rewarding in every sense of the word. I got a lot of awards for it in two cities [New York and Chicago], and it was wonderful to be in the company of Horton Foote. Horton loved actors and was a gracious, gallant and supportive presence. It had been more than 50 years since he wrote the play for television, and yet he was as fresh and receptive as ever. In fact, during our rehearsals, he decided that this three-act play could be a one-act, and he went to work cutting it to a 90-minute version. That was really thrilling. I was born in Kansas, not in Texas, but there was something very familiar about my character, Carrie Watts. One oddity is that my mother’s first name is Carrie; the friend that my character is going to Bountiful to see is named Hallie Davis, and Davis was my grandmother’s maiden name. The play was just a great pleasure to prepare.”

Role That Was My Big Break
“One of my first Broadway plays, when I was quite a young puppy, was The Young and Beautiful [1955]. The script was by Sally Benson, based on some F. Scott Fitzgerald stories, and I played Josephine Perry, kind of like a young Zelda. The play was set around the first world war, just prior to the 1920s flapper era, and Josephine was a precursor of that era. It was a big, responsible role very early in my career, and an enormous treat to play. This was a long time ago!”

Role That Was the Most Meaningful
The Grapes of Wrath [as Ma Joad; 1990 Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress] was a once-in-a-lifetime experience because we did three separate productions, each one fully rehearsed and drawing on the one before. We started at Steppenwolf, with Frank Galati doing both the adaptation and the direction; Gary Sinise, of course, played Tom Joad. I believe the first preview was four hours plus—it was impossible. We kept working at La Jolla and then Broadway; the process was entirely collaborative and very much a bonding experience for this huge company. I still have close friendships with the people who were in it. Again, the show reflected where I came from: My family moved from Kansas to the west coast, and in a certain way I made the journey the Joads did, although they were chased west by poverty.”

Role That Was the Most Challenging
Buried Child [as Halie; 1996 Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress] is hard to talk about because the mystery of that play is so deep and primal. It’s a family saga like no other, and so is Sam [Shepard]'s new play [Heartless]; they are deep and challenging, but also very exciting. Gary Sinise, who directed [Buried Child] at Steppenwolf and on Broadway, did a remarkable job. And Sam was with us, because he wanted to make some adjustments. At first, it seemed like Gary was putting us in a straitjacket, but he had a firm understanding of what the dynamics of the play had to be. It was really, really hard in the beginning, but afterward I realized that we couldn’t have gotten where we did if he hadn’t started that way.”

Role That Was the Wildest
“There were many different titles for Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending [1957]. Wild in the Country was one of them, and Carol Cutrere was an extremely wild character. She goes out driving and dancing—or “jooking,” as she calls it. I’ve done two of Tennessee’s plays: The year before Orpheus I played Laura in The Glass Menagerie at City Center. When you are rehearsing his plays, it feels like you are being lifted up with his dialogue. I had a speech [in Orpheus] about driving that I’ve been asked to deliver over the years at festivals and birthday celebrations for Tennessee. It’s such a gorgeous, beautifully written speech. I never knew Tennessee well, but in our professional acquaintance he was kind and interesting and very supportive.”

Role I Wish More People Saw
“A play most people will not have heard of, The Stick Wife [as Jessie Bliss, 1987, Hartford Stage], came to mind when I was thinking about this list. It was written by a woman named Darrah Cloud and directed by Roberta Levitow, and it was inspired by a magazine article about the wives of the murderers of the little girls in the Birmingham church [bombing in 1963]. I had a wonderful character, and the work we did on that play was among the most creative experiences I’ve ever had. It was one of those times when every challenge was met with such inventiveness and care, including figuring out how an invisible dog could leave tracks while walking across the stage. After a bidding war, Darrah sold the film rights to Jessica Lange, but alas, it was never made. There was just something special about that experience.”

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