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Lois Markle quit smoking in 1974. To play Violet Weston, the matriarchal monster in the Old Globe's August: Osage County, she must smoke eight cigarettes each performance. "The smell's disgusting," she says. But since Violet ranks among the most demanding roles in contemporary theater, "every cigarette comes as a relief!"

The tobacco makes her dizzy. "Which helps," she laughs, "because Violet can be off balance, too." The Globe's run of Osage concludes this Sunday. The second it's done, "I'll quit smoking."

Until then, "the role is all I do." The NYC resident hasn't been to a beach and spent only one hour at the zoo. She rests ("especially my voice," which cigarettes have made raspy) and pours over the script every day. Playwright Tracy Letts packed so much farce and fireworks into his epic that every performance "feels like spending all day at the gym."

Sharp, fiery, secretive, Violet Weston has battled the world since childhood. "To keep things in and isolate yourself like that takes enormous energy." Markle plays Violet like a bear trap: even though floating on downers, she's always taut, ready to spring.

"I didn't at first, but now I love Violet. She's a survivor."

When director Sam Gold talked to Markle about playing the role, he asked two questions: Could she play Violet without trying to make her nice (as other interpretations have tended to do)? And would she be willing to wear a stringy-haired "cancer wig"?

"Sure," Markle replied to both. "Sounds interesting."

Cast members usually arrive at "half hour," 30 minutes before curtain. Markle's there an hour and a half early. She puts on makeup with a slow ritual that allows her "to inhabit Violet, and her to inhabit me."

Weekends are the kicker: two matinees and two evening performances in two days. The actors have two hours between shows. Some keep their makeup on. Markle can't. After the matinee, she takes it off and gives herself 15 minutes to walk her dog and 15 more to eat a meal she prepared in advance. Then back to the ritual "with fresh makeup and a fresh inhabiting."

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