Aug. 29--Lois Viscoli, a stage actress who worked with many Santa Fe theater companies over the course of 55 years, died Tuesday of natural causes at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. She was 86.
"This is how I will remember Lois: always getting ready for the next adventure, the next idea, the new theater project, a lady full of wisdom, laughter and kindness," said actress Holly Hamilton, who first met Viscoli in the mid-1990s.
Just days before she died, Viscoli was planning trips to Greece and Cuba and producing a possible revival of the play My Old Lady, which she first performed at the Santa Fe Playhouse about 10 years ago.
Actor and writer Jonathan Richards, who worked with Viscoli several times, said, "She had plenty of life beyond the theater, but it was the theater that kept her fires lit."
An only child, Viscoli was born Lois Seiler in Baltimore on Feb. 9, 1928. Her parents were musicians. As a child, she attended the Peabody school for music and theater in Baltimore. By the time she was 10, she was already a working actress, performing on the NBC radio show Coast to Coast on A Bus, hosted by Milton Cross.
She graduated from high school at the age of 16, and by 18 she was working in summer stock in the New England area. In a 2000 interview with The New Mexican, she recalled it as a great training ground: "One week you're one character and you stay up until three in the morning studying lines for the next show the following week. And you have to be right on. You can't take time out to get in tune with the play or the period. You become very facile at becoming someone else very quickly and making it convincing."
She worked with some well-known performers along the way, including John Carradine, Diana Barrymore, Horton Foote and Lee Remick. Viscoli endured her fair share of onstage challenges and mishaps along the way. While performing Noel Coward's Private Lives in a summer stock production staged in a barn, she had to contend with the bats swooping down from the rafters to the stage every night.
Playing the grandmother in a Santa Fe Stages' 1999 production of House of Bernarda Alba, the audience entered to find Viscoli's character buried up to her neck in gravel. The actress remained there for close to an hour before emerging. "I was concerned that she was too frail to be placed in this position. No, she was game and tough," recalled producer Craig Strong.
Viscoli held down an array of jobs over the decades including librarian, television journalist, artistic director of theater companies and personal assistant. She traveled around the world and was still learning several languages up to the time of her death.
Viscoli's daughter Miranda said of her mother, "You could have this crazy dream [project] and people would say, 'No way.' She had 20 of those crazy dreams going on at the same time and made them all work."
Viscoli, who moved to Santa Fe in the late 1950s, earned a doctorate in English literature at The University of New Mexico. She taught English to state penitentiary inmates for many years. "I learned more from those men than they learned from me because I saw the human being without his mask," she recalled of that experience.
The prisoners came to respect her, according to Miranda Viscoli, and some told her mother, "If you have any problems in prison, let us know and we'll take care of it. And that goes for outside the prison, too."
Among Viscoli's Santa Fe theater credits: 'night Mother, The Retreat from Moscow, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Trip to Bountiful, Handy Dandy, and Vita and Virginia. In the latter she portrayed Virginia Wolff.
"I think the audience is my friend," Viscoli once said. "I feel they're sharing something with me: the experience of the character." Before going onstage, she always popped a tangerine Life Saver into her mouth for good luck, her daughter said.
Viscoli is survived by three children -- Jonathan, David and Miranda -- and five grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her husband, Sergio, who died in 2004. According to David, since the three children's birthdays fell in July, August and September, his mother would "cram them all into one celebration" on Miranda's birthday in August.
A celebration of Viscoli's life is scheduled for 4 p.m. Monday, Sept. 1, at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E. DeVargas St. The public is welcome.
Contact Robert Nott at 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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