Commanding the Stage

Actress Lois Markle ’52 has spent years disappearing into roles, earning raves for playing strong women who can make audiences cringe or cry

by Elise Gibson

In her sixty years on the stage, Lois Markle ’52 has played just about every kind of female role a playwright can imagine: overbearing mothers, seductive daughters, drug addicts, floozies, abusive nurses, and now grandmothers and matriarchs. All, that is, except one. “I’ve never been cast as an ingénue. Maybe it’s because I’m tall,” Markle says. “I’ve been called handsome, stately, beautiful, but not cute. Or fragile.”Lois Markle
Playing strong women, in fact, may well be her métier, judging from a critic’s review of her award-winning performance last year as the villainous Violet in August: Osage County at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. In the Los Angeles Times, Margaret Gray wrote: “Markle [is] . . . so terrifying that if I ever find myself in a room with her I’ll hit the deck, combat-crawl to the nearest exit and catch the first flight out of the country.”
The role was so physically demanding that Markle lost ten pounds during its five-week run. “Violet is a consummate bitch; a hard, tearing-apart role. And you’ve got to go there; you can’t fake it,” Markle says.
Even as a child, she wanted to act, she says. It was a skill that came in handy in her neighborhood as she staved off anti-Semitic slurs and attacks. At Smith, it helped her survive a bigoted housemother. “I remember thinking, ‘They’ll never see me cry.’ And they never did,” she says. “I certainly did put on a mask.” Here, Markle speaks about her long stage career, her beloved beach house, and how she learned that happiness is a choice.
Curtain up: I made my Broadway debut in A Calculated Risk [1962] opposite Joseph Cotten. I played a drunken nymphomaniac and made my entrance in a low-cut dress dragging an ermine. I remember that the stage door was down a filthy alley off 49th Street. Still, all these famous actors would come in singing and whistling, just for the joy of the work. How many people have that?
Light the lights: In the beginning I took thousands of hideous part-time jobs. But I always left room for auditions. I lived on 15 cents a day. At the Automat, a cup of tea was 5 cents, and a big chunk of gingerbread—enough to get you through the day—was 10 cents.
A favorite moment: I was opening in a one-woman show, Eleanor: In Her Own Words, in Chicago. Eleanor Roosevelt’s granddaughter, I think she was, visited me backstage and had in her hands a box. She said, “This was one of Eleanor’s pins that Franklin gave her. I thought you might like to wear it tonight.” It was big; crystal and stone. Throughout the performance, I kept reaching for it because every time I touched that pin it was as if I had stepped aside and Eleanor came into my body. I was her.
Roles that got away: Millions of them. I would have loved to play Blanche DuBois. And Hamlet’s mother.

Age and the theater: We live in an ageist society. In France, [actress] Jeanne Moreau is a national treasure. Here, we’re tossed on the dump heap. But my life experience feeds into and enriches and enlightens the work. All you’ve got is yourself. You are the instrument; that’s what you’re bringing to the stage.
Job security: Unless you’re a major star, you never know what’s coming. The thing that makes up for all the insecurity is the absolute joy of the work. I’ve never felt poor even when I was poor.
Her beach house in Montauk: I do everything there myself. I chop my own wood. I garden. I shingled the house myself. When I’m there I walk three miles on the beach every morning. It restores my soul and my health.

Finding contentment: I was not a happy young woman. But when I realized that happiness is a choice you can make, that’s when my life turned around. The older I get, the more I cherish everything.
Fall 2012 SAQ
Elise Gibson is editor of the SAQ
Photograph by Beth Perkins