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Actress Rises to New ‘Morning’s’ : Kristen Lowman Returns to Stage After ‘Building Up’ Talents on TV

If anyone remembers Paul Osborn’s play “Morning’s at Seven” at all, they probably retain images of old folks sitting around sparring with each other. But that’s forgetting about the play’s younger generation, equally stuck in place--and maybe even more frustrated. Perhaps especially the character of Myrtle, who comes into town on the train expecting to finally marry 40-and-getting-older Homer after an eight-year engagement.

It just so happens that Kristen Lowman, who plays Myrtle in director Martin Benson’s revival at South Coast Repertory (opening tonight), is pulling into Costa Mesa amid a cast full of the senior creme de la creme of Southern California theater. And if Myrtle has been waiting eight years for Homer to pop the question, Lowman has been away from SCR for seven years, “building myself up,” she says.

Sitting in an overstuffed chair in what might be mistaken for a living room--but is actually a back room at her favorite coffeehouse near her home in Studio City--Lowman sometimes appears to be building herself up to talk about Myrtle, her return to SCR for her eighth play there, her recurring stint as Marjorie on CBS-TV’s “Picket Fences,” and what an actor actually goes through.

Her gentle, petite, porcelain-like exterior hides an interior forever asking questions. More than once she asks her guest, as an actor might of a director, “Is this coming across?”

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This is a genuine question, perhaps the benchmark of Lowman’s art. And it’s just the opposite of a lack of confidence, according to those who have worked with her, such as Lisa James, who directed Lowman in two acclaimed L.A. Theatre Unit productions, “Heartstopper” and “Better Days.”

“Kristen is very much an original,” James said. “She always has a bold take on things, very uninhibited. She can be like a music instrument that can hit any note you wish. It’s as if I were to ask her, ‘Can you play a high C?,’ she would do it. That’s the kind of actress you dream of.”

But when Lowman thinks about acting, she thinks first, oddly enough, about writing.

“I’ve been taking a writing workshop for a while,” she said, “and I’ve been approaching reading in a whole new way. I see the same patience and faith an actor has. You have to allow yourself to go through doors and try not to predict what’s behind them, because you might discover something you didn’t expect.”

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It would seem on the surface that the well-worn comforts of Osborn’s gentle 1939 rural Midwestern comedy (revived on Broadway in 1955 after an unnotable premiere) don’t present an actor with much in the way of surprises or mysteries.

Myrtle arrives for Homer (played by Hal Landon, Jr.), is exquisitely pleasant to both Homer’s family and the neighboring Swansons, and dreams of the house on the hill promised to Homer. Basic, all-American stuff.

Lowman shakes her head vigorously: “Oooh, no, no! Martin noted from the start that this play is like Chekhov. There’s so much foundation to these characters, and what’s emotionally underneath is not always expressed. With these people, it always has to be filtered. Today, I could go over to my mom’s house and go, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’ In the days Osborn wrote this, you couldn’t. And because of that, if an actor just relies on the lines in this play, it sounds hollow.”

Then, settling further back in her chair, Lowman outlines her take on what’s beneath Osborn’s lines.

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“Myrtle’s expectations really get thrown for a loop, but when she gets knocked down, she picks herself up again. Martin says that it’s all born out of frustration. I first played her straight, but then Martin told me to mask the fear and desperation. Don’t show it. Otherwise she seems like a dimwit.

“Well, I’m driving home from rehearsals screaming ‘It’s so hard !’ That’s because there’s so much energy I use up. But it’s not the energy of jumping and running around the stage. It’s the energy of putting on a front all day, working so hard at it, then getting home, letting go of the front and sighing.”

Lowman calls this the kind of adult role she has graduated into, after doing a good deal of running and jumping around SCR’s stage in past “younger” roles.

“I feel very sentimental about South Coast Rep,” she said. “It’s a little strange coming back to it after so much time. It’s changed and expanded so much. There used to be open farm fields outside the back door, and now there are high-rises everywhere. I’m older"--though she doesn’t specify her age--"and before I was playing ditsier, fun parts. To tell the truth, I couldn’t do those now. I just feel more . . . capacity. It just comes from maturing.”

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Even a decade ago, Lowman was already making a memorable presence on virtually every major stage in Southern California, from San Diego’s Old Globe and the La Jolla Playhouse, to adventurous new work in smaller L.A. theaters like the Odyssey and the Cast.

A typical Lowman turn was her appearance as Vi Sprightly in “A Mad World, My Masters” in La Jolla’s opening season. Yes, she agreed, it was a fun, wonderful role, but then she adds, “I was also the one who came on as Margaret Thatcher. Bet you couldn’t tell.”

This kind of range and taste for disguise was amply displayed during Lowman’s very busy years at SCR, including Keith Reddin’s “Life and Limb,” Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Shaw’s “Major Barbara,” and Bernard Farrell’s “All in Favour Said No,” in which she shared the stage with Landon.

“There is a sense of a reunion now, especially with Hal,” Lowman said. “He has this fantastic sense of humor I can’t describe. And even though there may be the comfort as a resident actor (at SCR), for him, it’s always the new project that keeps things fresh.

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“And the women in this cast"--Patricia Fraser, Angela Paton, Priscilla Pointer and Kate Williamson--"are really beautiful, brilliant women. They’re showing me how an actress grows as she gets older. . . . Look at Maggie Smith: I just want to sink into her face; I never think that she’s getting old.”

Indeed, the art of acting was very much harder for Lowman when she was young, and just discovering that she might want to play other lives.

She had come to the demanding Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London from an uncommon childhood in Saudi Arabia, where she was born and where her father worked as a petrochemical engineer. After his death in Beirut, Lowman moved back to the States and studied at the University of Texas.

“Webber-Douglas changed the whole course of my life,” she said. “I didn’t have a clue what it meant to be an actress, but I got it there. They took you apart, and put you back together again. I can tell you that I spent a lot of time hanging out in the women’s bathroom, crying.”

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The acting game never gets easier, Lowman knows, which is why, for instance, she doesn’t wait by the telephone for a call from the producers of “Picket Fences.”

“If they want me, they call, and I’m there,” she said about her first recurring TV role after many series guest appearances. “The word comes in, and I have a week to get ready for taping. Then I arrive on the set, and it’s so busy, it’s like parachuting into a war zone.”

But now, Lowman has a more immediate battle: Racing down the freeway to get to SCR rehearsals on time.

“It gives me time to think, and I always come back to realizing that for me, my whole creative process comes here,” she said, pointing to her stomach. “When my gut is soft and not tense, then I’m OK. For me, that’s where it starts--not the heart or the head.”

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