In Christine Lahti, Signature has a star for its ‘Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill’

Linda Davidson/The Washington Post - Actress Christine Lahti stars in "Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill" at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA.

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Enter, in an unlikely place, Christine Lahti: tall, lean, radiating just the right touch of glamour in a sleek, low-key charcoal sweater dress that looks like cashmere. The face — dark eyes ripe for suffering, bright smile to drive home wry punch lines — is famous from years on screens, in movies from “Swing Shift” and “Housekeeping” to “Running on Empty,” on TV in “Chicago Hope” and — at age 63! — as the dangerous, long-lost mother of detective Steve McGarrett on the new “Hawaii Five-O.”

The late morning sun beams as the Emmy-Oscar-Golden Globe winner takes a seat in an empty theater lobby overlooking a strip of eateries. The town is hers.

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The town is Shirlington.

“I would maybe do this play anywhere on earth,” Lahti says. “It spoke to me that profoundly.”

“This play” is “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill,” a new four-character drama of family dysfunction from the up-and-coming Paul Downs Colaizzo. And Lahti must love it: Otherwise why would she sign up for a run that starts Tuesday and continues into December? And not on Signature Theatre’s 270-seat main stage, which has showcased a musical theater star or two, but in its ultra-cozy 110-seat Ark space?

“This might be the smallest theater I’ve worked in since my off-off-Broadway days,” Lahti says, invoking her mid-1970s pay-your-dues jobs when she would sometimes be compensated with a couple of subway tokens.

“Mine, too, so it’s fine,” deadpans director Michael Kahn, longtime head of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, where Kahn is known for large-scale classical work. Kahn’s salad days in the 1960s included new plays in downtown New York spaces, too, a sensation he returned to with his current staging of “Torch Song Trilogy” at the Studio Theatre.

“The intimacy of it, not having to punch it out, is nice,” Kahn says by phone. “For Christine, because she loves the play so much, she chose to go where the play was being done.”

“That was remarkable,” Colaizzo enthuses from Los Angeles, where he’s working on a project for HBO. “She read the play and had to do the play. It wasn’t about anything else. That was such a compliment.”

Colaizzo, 28, shook up audiences last year with “Really Really,” a taut, twisting, he-said/she-said saga of drunken, amoral college kids. The play was a hit when it premiered at Signature, and had an acclaimed production off-Broadway earlier this year.

“Really Really” wasn’t exactly hot off Colaizzo’s laptop; he had written it years before. The same is true of “Autrey Mill,” which teases out the secrets of an upper-class family in a tony Atlanta suburb next-door to where Colaizzo grew up. The title refers to an actual development called The Falls of Autry Mill (no “e” in the real “Autry”); the Web site describes it as “a prestigious swim and tennis community.”

“I always thought it sounded like a woman falling down,” Colaizzo says of the enclave’s name.

Carly, the woman Colaizzo created for his play, is central as her husband and two sons confront her with enormous revelations. As soon as he knew Signature would produce the script, Colaizzo called his agent and said, “Who do you have that’s fabulous?”

Luckily, his agent and Lahti’s are one and the same.

For Lahti, the script rang true to her 1950s and 1960s upbringing in suburban Michigan. The housewives of that era, she recalls, “didn’t have voices,” something that plagues Carly in Colaizzo’s modern, darkly funny script.

“I’d been looking to do a new play for awhile,” says Lahti, who two years ago starred in Adam Rapp’s “Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling” off-Broadway at the 199-seat Classic Stage Company (produced by the Atlantic Theater Company). “And this was like a dream come true.”

“She looks perfect, she’s the right age, she’s emotionally right,” Kahn says. “And she understands comedy.”

Lahti compares the play’s humor to “God of Carnage,” another four-character drama about polite society baring its fangs that she acted in for three months on Broadway.

“The more painful it is for us, the funnier it will be,” she suggests.

The showbiz path that brought Lahti here has been businesslike and almost unfailingly busy — a challenge for any Hollywood-based actress to sustain over decades.

“I really, really love to work,” she says. The résumé, packed with TV movies (“The Executioner’s Song,” “No Place Like Home”) and miniseries (“Amerika,” “Jack and Bobby”), doesn’t suggest many spells when the offers dried up.

“Maybe the longest would be six months, but I’d be ready to blow my brains out after six months not working,” she says. “I’d get very depressed, because that was my whole identity.”

That attitude softened in the 1980s, after Lahti and her husband, “Sports Night” and “West Wing” TV producer-director Thomas Schlamme, started a family. (Their three children are grown now.) But it seems Lahti’s been a workhorse since her studies at Michigan and postgraduate days at Florida State, where the onstage opportunities were copious, even if the training was iffy.

Except (shh!) in mime: In Florida, the best theater teacher taught mime, and Lahti loved it. She played Caliban in a mimed production of “The Tempest” that the students took to London and the Edinburgh Fringe. When she told Kahn, the noted Shakespearean director was aghast.

“Whaaat?” Lahti says, playfully impersonating Kahn’s low growl. “You MIMED as Caliban?”

She mimed in Central Park, too, trying to earn a little extra cash as an aspiring actress after she moved to New York. She and her musician friend made three bucks and change.

“There weren’t a lot of people dying to see a mime in whiteface,” Lahti says. “With a clarinetist.”

By the end of the 1970s, Lahti began to gain traction, winning a Theater World Award for David Mamet’s “The Woods” and landing a role in the Al Pacino movie “. . . and Justice For All.” The wild card on that early résuméis a stint on the short-lived “The Harvey Korman Show” in 1978, a job she dreaded almost as much as her very early TV commercials for cleaning products.

“I remember having to do 20 takes because I was so not where I wanted to be in my life,” she says. She was pitching a floor cleanser.

TV generally struck her as “low rent,” in her phrase, until “Chicago Hope” – an irony for someone married to a man who is regarded as helping push TV taste forward.

“I was a hippie,” Lahti explains, and this comes as easily as saying “I am a feminist” to start describing how she understands Carly (“not a feminist”) in “Pride in the Falls.” The radical atmosphere of college in Ann Arbor, 1968-1972, comes back vividly as she describes sprinting after rehearsal to a demonstration against the Vietnam War or for civil rights; she can’t remember which. But she remembers the line of police.

“Pigs, we called them,” she says. “Cops. With clubs. And they were beating the front line of people. And the next day one of my actor friends who was doing this play with me had a big bruise on his forehead. It was like a status symbol.”

Lahti may not exactly be Jane Fonda 2.0 or the American Vanessa Redgrave; after all, if last spring’s pilot for “Beverly Hills Cop” had been picked up by CBS, Lahti – cast as the female lead, a police captain – would be on an L.A. soundstage rather than here. And McGarrett’s mom: Could the 25-year-old Lahti have pictured that?

“Never,” Lahti says. “But the feminist part of me, yes. Because there aren’t many 63-year-old women on television having that kind of opportunity to be an active, strong, you know — not a grandmother.”

She’s a visible activist, eagerly taking on such consciousness-raising plays as “The Vagina Monologues” and “8,” the docudrama about California’s anti-gay-marriage Proposition 8. She has campaigned with John F. Kerry and Hillary Rodham Clinton. She’s on the board of Equality Now, aimed at ending violence against women and girls, something her friend Gloria Steinem recommended to her. She has blogged a couple times for the Huffington Post.

“Arianna’s a friend,” Lahti says, adding that when the two walk together, Huffington often parries Lahti’s statements by saying, “You should blog that!” But to Lahti, blogging felt narcissistic.

Does that mean she’s still a hippie?

“In my heart, I am,” she says. “But I certainly have sold out in terms of those very strict definitions of no material possessions, you can’t be ambitious. I’m completely the opposite, especially the ambition part. . . . I still do certain things for the money.”

And yet she says that’s worked because she long ago gave up on any classic Hollywood notions of “career moves.”

“Is it a career move to come to Signature Theater?” she says. “Who gives a [hoot]?”

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Pride in the Falls of Autry Mill

by Paul Downs Colaizzo. Tuesday through Dec. 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Shirlington. Call 703-573-7328 or visit signature-theatre.org.

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