Lois Smith may not have been on Broadway in over two decades, but theatre fans haven’t had the chance to notice. That’s because Smith—whose Broadway debut was her acting debut in 1952’s Time Out for Ginger—has kept more than busy Off-Broadway and in film and television.
“When I’m in a play, that’s the point, wherever it is,” Smith says. “And in recent years, most of my plays have been on 42nd Street west of Ninth Avenue.”
She’s definitely back on the Main Stem now, though, in this year’s epic, two-part The Inheritance, directed by Stephen Daldry, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. An Olivier Award–winning hit in London, Matthew Lopez’s modern homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End returns Smith to Broadway for a critical role originally played by Vanessa Redgrave in the West End.
“I’m really awfully pleased,” says Smith, who did readings of the show in its early incarnations. She adds with a laugh, “I’m sure in many ways people are sad that Vanessa decided not to come, but I’m glad she didn’t!”
With such a pivotal but small role, Smith has plenty of time backstage, noting of the two-part work, “Everyone is going to be so jealous of me, working every other night!” But with her downtime, she finds herself offstage, listening. “The music of a play is always present when you’re waiting,” she says. “I like that, that’s something I really like.”
Smith serves as a connection to the recent past, both on the stage and off, for the cast of younger characters (and actors). A two-time Tony nominee (for The Grapes of Wrath and Buried Child), she tackles the character’s lengthy monologue with aplomb and nuance—and a healthy sense of meeting a challenge.
“I despaired for a while,” Smith says, “and I still have this feeling of, ‘Oh my goodness, the five main characters in the play have all been doing it for a while in London! And boy, they’re so good! How am I going to reach this standard?’”
If the rest of her career is any indication, with grace, deftness, and aching humanity.