Jane Lowry, an actress whose 30-year career began at New York City’s legendary Caffe Cino and went on to include Broadway, film, television, and repertory theater, died November 15 after a brief illness. She was 82 years old.
Although Ms. Lowry made her Broadway debut early on, the bulk of her career and her most interesting roles wound up being on smaller stages – both in New York and in regional theaters around the country. As a young actress, she had lamented not fitting the mold for traditional ingénue roles, but her versatility and range allowed her to excel at character parts that became her signature as a performer.
Jane Moyer Lowry was born on February 11, 1937, the daughter of Goodrich and Louise (Moyer) Lowry. Her father was a banking executive from a prominent Minneapolis family: Jane’s great-grandfather Thomas Lowry founded the Twin City Rapid Transit Company, and Goodrich Lowry went on to write the book Streetcar Man, about his grandfather’s role in the growth of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Lowry Hill neighborhood, Thomas Lowry Park, and the Lowry Nature Center were all named in recognition of the family’s contributions to the Twin Cities.
Growing up in Wayzata, an affluent lakefront community, Jane attended Northrop Collegiate School in Minneapolis (where she was voted “Best All-Around” in the 8th-grade class poll) and grades 9-12 at Miss Hall’s School, a girls’ boarding school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She enjoyed writing and acting: her short stories and poems were published in yearbooks at both schools, and at Miss Hall’s she appeared in productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I Remember Mama.
Jane remained in the Midwest for college, matriculating at Northwestern University — renowned for its School of Speech – in Fall of 1955. She served on the annual Northwestern Drama Festival’s costume crew the summer following her freshman year, and landed her first acting role as a sophomore – as part of the “Chorus of Argive Women” in Sophocles’ Electra.
Even in her college years, Jane gravitated toward character parts over ingénue roles. She had her first major part junior year in Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba (as Martirio, the “most tragic daughter … whose longing to love has made her cruel and jealous”), followed by a small part in Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo; and finally a leading role as Varya in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. In reviewing the latter, the Daily Northwestern commented that “Varya (Jane Lowry), the old maid of the family, glides uncomfortably across stage looking perfectly and painfully single from her first entrance.”
The Cherry Orchard was directed by Alvina Krause, the famous acting coach and speech professor who had studied with Konstantin Stanislavski and who reigned at Northwestern for more than 30 years. In addition to teaching, Professor Krause operated the Eagles Mere Playhouse, a summer repertory theater located near the Pocono Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. Jane was one of a handful of students invited to join the company in 1958, following her junior year; nine productions were mounted in a two-month period, and among those in which Jane appeared were Molière’s Don Juan (as Elvira), and Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates (as Andromache).
Jane graduated from Northwestern in June 1959 and was named “Best Actress of the Year” by the drama faculty. Her only plan at that point was a second season with the Eagles Mere company; she left for Pennsylvania the week after graduation, along with fellow students Richard Benjamin and Paula Ragusa (later Paula Prentiss), and had roles in such plays as Inherit the Wind and the Leonard Bernstein musical Wonderful Town.
Although “petrified” at the thought of living in New York City, Jane decided that it was the logical next step if she was serious about acting. Improbably, her first apartment wound up being on the city’s exclusive Upper East Side. “Mother went with me to help me get settled,” she told a Washington Post reporter in 1963. “And because a taxi driver told her he wouldn’t let any daughter of his live in New York alone unless it was in the East 40s to 60s, Mother took a lease on a co-op on East 49th. I lived there for a year in a style to which I am not now accustomed.”
Jane arrived in New York in Fall of 1959. Six months later, she got her first acting job – as a replacement in the off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, which only had two weeks left in the run.
When that ended, she continued to make the rounds of auditions while supporting herself with part-time jobs (including a stint as a Lincoln Center tour guide). Finding roles was challenging. “I can’t play ingenues because I’m too tall,” she stated in the Washington Post interview. She was 5’9. “And, I’m not old enough for the interesting, mature parts.” She also took singing lessons to lower her speaking voice, maintaining that her height and her high voice were “not a good combination for serious roles.”
In 1961 she found an unofficial residency in the unlikely setting of a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. Located at 31 Cornelia Street, the Caffe Cino was founded by Joe Ctoldino, a former dancer who initially envisioned a traditional bohemian venue with poetry readings and art exhibitions. However, its reputation wound up being built on the presentation of plays – a bold and unconventional move for a coffeehouse, and one that is widely credited with inaugurating the off-off-Broadway theater movement.
Doric Wilson was one of the earliest playwrights to have his work presented at the Caffe Cino. The first was called And He Made a Her, a one-act satire about Adam and Eve that opened in March 1961. Wilson later admitted to recalling little about opening night: “Mostly I remember Lowry’s entrance as Eve — a vision sheathed in apple green, sensually, elegantly toc toc toc’ing her way (in three inch heels).”
Jane was featured in two more Doric Wilson plays that year: Babel, Babel, Little Tower and Now She Dances! Recalling their collaboration, the author referred fondly to “Lady Jane” and “one of Joe Cino’s most beloved actresses (and my Gertrude Lawrence).” The two would remain friends until Wilson’s death in 2011.
1961 also marked Jane’s first mention (as well as her photo) in the New York Times, for the off-Broadway The Only Sense is Nonsense. The program consisted of two one-act comedies by the English writer N.F. Simpson; Jane’s half was called The Hole, and critic Louis Calta noted that “Muriel Dooley and Jane Lowry are humorous as the housewives cogitating the clashing natures of their husbands.”
Jane’s next role was arguably her biggest stretch so far – playing a woman twice her age in This Side of Paradise, based on a 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and directed by acclaimed acting coach Herbert Berghof. She was cast as the mother of the main character, even though actor Paul Roebling was actually just three years older than Jane in real life.
Wary of being typecast, Jane resisted additional offers to play older characters. “If you get just one older part in a season, that’s fine, and that’s fair,” she explained. “But a whole season of parts 60 to 70 years of age and over would not be fair to me. They are nice exercises, but you have to think of the future.”
1964 was a milestone year: Jane made her Broadway debut in Poor Bitos, a bitter political allegory by the French playwright Jean Anouilh. A bitter political allegory comparing the turmoil of post-WW2 France to the French Revolution, the show had dicey commercial prospects, but producer Harold Prince had admired the London production and imported it to the U.S.
Things got off to a promising start with two weeks of sold-out previews, culminating in a thrilling opening night on November 14, 1964. “We couldn’t get into our dressing room for 30 minutes because there were so many incredible bouquets of flowers,” Jane recalled.
Disappointingly, the critical response was lukewarm — although the Associated Press complimented the “uniformly excellent” ensemble that included “two White Way newcomers, Jane Lowry and Nancy Reardon.” Even so, Poor Bitos closed after just 17 official performances.
Jane returned to Broadway as understudy to Marian Seldes (who was famous for never missing a performance) in Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance in 1966-67. A year later, Jane had the opportunity to play the same part in the Pittsburgh Playhouse’s 1968 production; a local critic noted that “Jane Lowry as the daughter displays waspish conceit in an accomplished way.”
Meanwhile, she continued to work in summer stock and repertory theater throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. At the Clinton (Connecticut) Playhouse in Summer 1964, a local critic hailed her portrayal of Hannah Jelkes in Night of the Iguana as “one of the best performances of the young season.” Two years later, with the Barter Resident Acting Company in Abingdon, Virginia, Jane’s turn as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible inspired a reviewer to remark that she “brought to the role a perfect combination of tenderness and quiet strength.” Jane was also part of the inaugural company of the Wayside Theatre in Middletown, Virginia in Summer 1963; the 1967 winter season of the Loretto-Hilton Center Repertory Theatre near St. Louis, Missouri; the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; and summer stock at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, in 1974
In 1970, Jane appeared in the first two productions of the brand-new Circle Repertory Company, which had been co-founded by her former Northwestern classmate Marshall Mason. The premiere was David Starkweather’s A Practical Ritual to Exorcise Frustration After Five Days of Rain; Jane later admitted that the actors “didn’t really believe in this play. We had no idea what it was, although we liked David.” The second production was Chekhov’s Three Sisters – directed by Mason, eleven years after he and Jane appeared onstage together in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard at Northwestern.
In 1973, Jane scored a personal success in Lanford Wilson’s Hot l Baltimore, another Circle Repertory Company production. As the prostitute Suzy, Jane was a replacement in the New York cast and then originated the role in the Baltimore production later that year. “Suzy is played by Jane Lowry and she is the best thing in the show,” declared Richard Lebherz in the Frederick (Maryland) News-Post. “There is a sincerity in her performance that comes through. As a hooker she probably is a flop because she is hunting for love instead of security and for a hooker that is bad news.”
The Baltimore Sun’s R.H. Gardner wrote that “the two performances that most won my heart were those turned in by Eunice Anderson, as Millie, and Jane Lowry, as Suzy … their appeal is compounded by the on-the-nose performances of the Misses Anderson and Lowry, the latter of whom at one point is obliged to appear stark naked – a first for Center Stage.”
Over the years, critics commented on Jane’s resemblance to another, more famous actress. In reviewing the 1976 off-Broadway play Cracks, Emory Lewis in the New Jersey Record observed that Jane – at age 39 — looked “startlingly like a young Eve Arden.” Eight years later, Lawrence DeVine in the Detroit Free Press observed that “Miss Lowry is probably weary of hearing how much she reminds one of Eve Arden, but she does and that’s a compliment.”
Jane made two movies. She had a small part in Speed is of the Essence, a Michael Sarrazin/Jacqueline Bisset vehicle whose title was later changed to Believe in Me. By the time the movie was released in 1971, however, significant edits had been made (reportedly MGM was unhappy with the movie’s grim depiction of drug abuse) and Jane’s scenes had been excised.
However, Jane found a whole new audience with her next (and last) movie and her only foray into the horror genre: Alice, Sweet Alice, the story of a masked killer terrorizing a Catholic community in 1961 New Jersey. -Backing up her claim that she was “terrific in [playing] neurotics,” Jane delivered a full-throttle performance as the bullying Aunt Annie – a thoroughly enjoyable “mean” character who ends up on the wrong side of the assailant’s knife (although Aunt Annie is the only character who survives her attack).
Under its original title Communion, the movie premiered in 1976 at the Chicago International Film Festival. Local critic Roger Ebert called the film “shocking,” with “a nice touch for the macabre” and “some splendidly chilling scenes.” However, even with Ebert’s support and the awarding of a silver plaque at the Chicago festival, the movie seemed destined for obscurity — until one of the supporting cast members, who had been ten years old at the time of filming — began to attract attention for portraying a child prostitute in the 1978 period drama Pretty Baby. Brooke Shields’ fame kept Alice, Sweet Alice alive and allowed it to find an audience (and a new generation of fans for Jane).
Jane’s final appearance on a New York stage came in 1979, when she appeared in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’ A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur at the Hudson Guild Theatre. A four-woman drama with Shirley Knight leading the cast, Jane played Miss Gluck, a German-speaking woman reeling from the loss of her mother. Richard Eder in the New York Times commented on Jane’s “picture of incomprehensible grief,” while The Nation’s Harold Clurman observed that “Jane Lowry is excellent as the dotty and bereft upstairs neighbor.” New Jersey Record’s Emory Lewis agreed that she “does amazingly well by the most sketchily written role.”
TV audiences saw Jane in a variety of guest spots, including the soap operas Ryan’s Hope and Love of Life, and the police drama McCloud. She also appeared in the 1976 mini-series The Adams Chronicle; an unaired TV movie called Run, Valerie, Run; and a 1981 children’s after-school special called My Mother Was Never a Kid.
From 1980 on, Jane performed almost exclusively on regional stages – and mostly at Meadow Brook Theatre, a Detroit-area venue where Jane appeared in at least eleven productions between 1980 and 1991. Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic, and Noël Coward’s Present Laughter and Hay Fever were among the plays that featured Jane at Meadow Brook. Most of the productions were directed by Terry Kilburn, Meadow Brook’s erstwhile Artistic Director and Jane’s longtime friend.
Between 1980-1988, Jane also appeared in three different productions of A Summer Remembered (originally called Summer People), by Charles Nolte — who coincidentally spent most of his childhood in Jane’s hometown of Wayzata. A “gently sentimental memoir,” the play told the story of an extended family that gathers, possibly for the last time, at a summer home in Northern Minnesota.
Jane’s last role was A.R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer, performed at Meadow Brook in January 1991.
After retiring from acting in her early 50s, Jane found another creative outlet in writing. She was a longtime member of the Advanced Poetry Workshop at the New School, under the tutelage of Elaine Equi and Patricia Carlin; and in 2015, she published a collection of poems titled Who Are We?, where she shared observations about nature and memories of people and places from her early life in Minnesota.
She also enjoyed traveling, and just weeks before her death had visited friends in Palm Springs, California.
While Jane never forgot her midwestern roots, she considered herself a New Yorker and she loved New York City – her home for 60 years. She was especially fond of Greenwich Village, and from 1978 until the end of her life she lived on West 10th Street — just minutes away from Cornelia Street and the site of the long-gone Caffe Cino, where her career had begun so many years before.