From the deep archives: Jean Smart

December 26, 2019


Jean Smart just celebrated her first anniversary of moving to New York City. She spent most of the last year giving one of the season’s great performances in Jane Chambers’ long-running play Last Summer at Bluefish Cove, which moved from Off-Off-Broadway’s New Shandol Theater and Westside Mainstage to its current home Off-Broadway at the Actors Playhouse. And as an anniversary present, she’ll be making her Broadway debut in Pam Gems’ new play Piaf, which opens Thursday at the Plymouth Theater.

In Bluefish Cove Smart played Lil, a funny and romantic businesswoman fighting off terminal cancer and the pity of her friends by plunging into a torrid affair with a straight woman who unwittingly wandered into a lesbian summer resort. Chambers’ script carefully steered around most of the ample opportunities for Camille-like sentimentality, and so did Smart’s performance. Yet she managed – with just an occasional abstract gaze, a nervous cheerfulness, a sudden shattering of carefree façade – to transform almost a soap opera situation into a classic story of love and life struggling against grim odds. Blond and sultry, fleshy yet petite, Smart looked statuesque, which made all the more surprising her quick, husky voice, her pealing laugh, and her utter naturalness as an actor. Then, too the role’s rapid moodswings gave her a chance to show her stuff – inf act, she endured an arduous commute to play Lady Macbeth in Pittsburgh during the showcase stage of Bluefish Cove because, she says, “I knew Lil was too good a part to give up.” It’s always difficult to follow such a spectacular performance, but the producers of Piaf must have spied Smart’s budding charisma. In that play she has one short but pungent scene playing Marlene Dietrich.

Born and reared in Seattle, Smart began her career by staking out the Northwest Territory’ she has worked extensively at such theaters as Seattle Rep, A.C.T., the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Alaska Rep. At the latter she appeared in Terra Nova, Ted Tally’s play about Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, who first reached the North Pole. “A friend in L.A. asked, ‘What do you do for a set, open the back wall of the theater?’” Still in her early ‘30s, Smart had already essayed such roles as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Eve in A History of the American Film,  and Hesione in Shaw’s Heartbreak House before making the inevitable migration to New York.

Putting off that migration gave her a chance to both learn her craft and see the world. Married for a few years to a Marine, she spent several months in japan when he was stationed there. “Another woman and I tried to start a dinner theater in the officers’ club,” she recalled. “We held auditions for You Can’t Take It With You, but nobody came. We had wanted to call it the Yes Theater. Nobody got the joke, so maybe it was just as well.”

(photo by Jonathan Postal)

Soho News, February 4, 1981

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