Motherly love — until he says the bad word



Edward Albee called her a monster. Well, he called the character she was playing — more properly, reading — a monster. This was during a reading of Kate Fodor’s “100 Saints You Should Know” a year or two ago at the Cherry Lane.

The character is Colleen, a woman in her 60s, whose adored son Matthew, in his 30s — she calls him Mattie — is an ardent Roman Catholic priest in deep trouble with his conscience and his church for his longings toward some photographs of naked men that he has — yes! — torn out of a book he came upon by accident in the public library.

His mother senses something wrong, but doesn’t know what.

MATTHEW: I’m sorry to have let you down.


COLLEEN: You haven’t let me down! There’s been a misunderstanding of some kind, that’s all it is. We’ll find a way to sort it out with the monsignor and the bishop …


MATTHEW: It’s not like that, Ma … I don’t feel as though I have a choice.


COLLEEN: There’s always a choice in life.


MATTHEW: I don’t know if I love God properly any more.


COLLEEN: All men of faith have doubts, Mattie. Pray on it.


MATTHEW: I’m not finding prayer very useful.

 COLLEEN: What do you need, then?




COLLEEN: God loves you.




COLLEEN: Don’t you dare say that word to me like that! … Don’t you dare look me in the face like that and say that word …


MATTHEW: I just … I have a longing, Ma …


COLLEEN: A longing for what, Mattie?


MATTHEW: A surge of the heart, a cry of recognition and love.

But his mother turns a deaf ear to that longing and his entire crisis. It’s too much for her. Does that make her a monster?

“When I first read this play,” said Lois Smith — i.e., that reading at the Cherry Lane — “I never thought of her as a monster. I do not feel she’s a monster,” said the Lois Smith who is now playing Colleen at Playwrights’ Horizons on Theater Row, and whose splendid career on stage and screen — since her first dazzling entry before these eyes 50 years ago in Tennessee Willliams’s “Orpheus Descending” directed by Harold Clurman — was capped by every award in sight in last season’s revival of Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful.”

“I do not, and never did see her as a monster. She has the certainty of her faith, yes. That’s where she belongs in this play.”

“It’s true, Colleen has a sort of Irish fierceness, and a mother’s fierceness,” said playwright Kate Fodor, sharing a half-hour’s interview break last week. “And a Catholic fierceness,” Lois Smith threw in. “I think there’s a little bit of Irish in my heritage, but not primarily.”

There are, in fact, two mothers in “100 Saints You Should Know.” The other is Theresa (Janel Moloney), the cleaning woman at the rectory — 30ish, attractive, hard-living, the single parent of a rebellious, whip-smart teenage daughter. When Theresa brings to the priest, or ex-priest (Jeremy Shamos), a book she’s found that he left behind, “Dark Night of the Soul,” by Saint John of the Cross, she gets entangled in his and his mother’s life, and young Abby, Theresa’s daughter, gets entangled — disastrously for him — with a slightly backward neighborhood delivery boy (Will Rogers).

“I have one daughter,” said Lois Smith, “but she’s grown up, so that’s behind us now. She’s Moon Smith, a midwife in Philadelphia, with three children of her own.”

How much of hell-raising Abby (Zoe Kazan) comes out of Kate Fodor herself?

“Oh, a lot — unfortunately,” said the playwright. “I think Abby’s problem is that she’s too smart to take comfort in the things you take comfort from. She wants to be treated as a child, but she’s smarter than a child.”

Zoe Kazan is Elia Kazan’s granddaughter. Lois Smith’s breakthrough movie was “East of Eden,” directed by Elia Kazan, 1955. “And I did an ‘Uncle Vanya’ with him — I was Sonya — in Los Angeles. He was an important friend in my life. I miss him still.” And Clurman, needless to say.

Ms. Smith, ever think you’d be in a play with Kazan’s granddaughter? A raised eyebrow said No.

Lois Humbert was born in Topeka, Kansas; the family moved to Seattle, Washington, when she was 10.

“I was one of six children. My father worked for the telephone company. For reasons I’ll never know, he took himself to courses in acting and directing. A devout Protestant, he put on plays in his church. He loved it. I’d go to rehearsal, and if somebody didn’t show up, I’d read the lines. I think when I was 4 years old I was in ‘Adam and Eve in the Garden.’ The preacher’s son was Adam.”

She herself is an ordained minister. Her ex-husband, Moon Smith’s father, is Wesley Smith, a Greek and Latin scholar who taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania.

My guess, said I, is that Colleen in this play is the farthest from the real Lois Smith you could get.

“Pretty far,” the actress said.

“What I wanted,” said the playwright, “was to have someone play Colleen who was gentle and thoughtful — and not a monster.”

Did it bother you when Albee called her a monster?

“It made me aware.”

Kate Fodor was born May 12, 1970, in Boston, when her father was teaching at MIT. Her father’s field is philosophy, her mother’s is linguistics. They now teach at Rutgers and CUNY.

“I was interested in the question of what it is to be a Catholic priest in modern America. There has to be more to it than meets the eye.”

No, Kate is not Catholic — her father’s Jewish, her mother’s Church of England — but her husband is. He’s Doug Mecron, a business journalist. They met when she was working as an editor at Reuters, in Times Square.

Actress to playwright: “How about your husband’s parents?”

“That’s what I’m worried about. They have been warned. I had my husband call them and say there are bad words in this play. They said that didn’t matter.”

What matters is a surge of the heart, a cry of recognition and love.

100 SAINTS YOU SHOULD KNOW. By Kate Fodor. Directed by Ethan McSweeney. Through September 30 at Playwrights’ Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, (212) 279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.org.