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Lois Smith, a veteran actor, is just reaching her 'Prime'

Lois Smith, a veteran actor, is just reaching her 'Prime'
Actress Lois Smith is appearing in the play "Marjorie Prime." (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Even after six decades, Lois Smith still feels a thrill whenever she steps out on stage.

"In a certain way, I guess the excitement probably deepens like other things do," said Smith, 83, who received the Obie Lifetime Achievement Award last year for her work off-Broadway and earned Tony nominations in 1990 for "The Grapes of Wrath" and in 1996 for Sam Shepard's "Buried Child."

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FOR THE RECORD

An Oct. 8 Calendar article on actress Lois Smith said that in the film "Five Easy Pieces," she played the mother of Jack Nicholson's character; rather, she played the sister of Nicholson's character.
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Smith is making a rare Los Angeles appearance — the first she can recall since 1969 — in "Marjorie Prime," a play by Jordan Harrison having its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 19.

"Last night was an event," Smith said during an interview last week at her downtown Los Angeles apartment. "It was really wild."

Smith was late on a line early in the first scene of the play, in which she portrays an 85-year-old woman in an assisted living facility. Without missing a beat, costar Jeff Ward, who plays a hologram of her late husband, threw Smith a prompt that allowed them to finish the scene.

"Nobody knew," she said. "It was seamless"

And fitting for a play about memory. Smith first read "Marjorie Prime" a few years ago.

"I loved it," she said. "The way you get the story and facts is constantly surprising. Audience members tell us they just keep thinking and thinking about it. We're still thinking and talking and discovering. And we've been working on it for months."

"Marjorie Prime" marks the first time Les Waters has directed Smith, whom he describes as "one of this country's greatest actresses. She's an extraordinarily kind, modest person to work with. She sets a very, very high standard for her work."

And has a somewhat naughty sense of humor. "She's very witty," Waters said. "Spending hours and hours of time with her in the rehearsal room is about as good as it gets."

While Smith is treading the boards at the Taper, Cicely Tyson is reprising her Tony Award-winning turn as Carrie Watts next door at the Ahmanson in the revival of Horton Foote's "The Trip to Bountiful," a role for which Smith received a Drama Desk Award in the off-Broadway revival eight years ago.

In a youth-obsessed Hollywood, there's something thrilling in both plays at the Music Center starring eightysomething actresses.

Though she's best known for her stage work, Smith's long list of film work includes1955's "East of Eden" opposite James Dean; 1970's "Five Easy Pieces," which earned her a National Society of Film Critics Award for playing Jack Nicholson's mother; 1996's "Twister"; and 2005's "Sweet Land."

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She also has graced the small screen in everything from a live TV production of August Strindberg's "Miss Julie" to HBO's "True Blood," in which she played Sookie's beloved grandmother.

"I don't always work, but I've been fortunate," Smith said in a bit of understatement.

New York welcomed her when she arrived in the early 1950s after studying drama at the University of Washington for 2 1/2 years. Her first job was a supporting role in the 1952 Broadway comedy "Time Out for Ginger," which ran for 248 performances.

Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas ("Hud," "Being There"), who played her father in the play, became something of a mentor.

"My character comes out in the last act dressed as Queen Victoria," Smith recalled. "She's off to do the school play. The last night of the run on Broadway in my final exit, my parents see me out the door and Melvyn ad libbed, 'She's going to be a great actress, that kid.' Isn't that a beauty? He couldn't have been lovelier."

Twitter: @mymackie

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