By J.D. Reed
December 15, 2003 12:00 PM

Out with a friend in Park City, Utah, not long ago, Marcia Cross was approached by a stranger who said, “I know you—you’re on Ever-wood.” Cross’s response? “I was like, ‘Yes!’ It’s time to shift away from Melrose Place.”

Her relief is understandable. For much of the mid-’90s, as MP‘s deranged Dr. Kimberly Shaw, the actress was a touchstone of child-abducting, wigged-out evil. Millions tuned in to find out what horrors Kimberly would perpetrate next.

Now Cross, 41, a dedicated yoga fan, is in a mellower place—onscreen and off. She’s doing a half-season stint on The WB drama Everwood, the saga of a widowed surgeon (Treat Williams) raising two kids in a Colorado town. Cross once again plays a physician, this time a sane one, Dr. Linda Abbott. “She’s an embodiment of a lot of things I believe in,” says Cross. “She’s an acupuncturist into Eastern philosophy and very spiritual.” Not too otherworldly to have a fling with Williams’s character, though. “I told her you can’t tell so much from the work she’s done,” says Williams, referring to MP, “but she’s a great gal.”

And a good student. Aside from a few guest shots on the likes of CSI and Ally McBeal, Cross disappeared from TV after Melrose in 1997. She was busy completing her master’s degree in psychology at L.A.’s Antioch University. “I have always wanted to know what’s going on under the surface,” she says. She graduated in 2002, not long before she got the Everwood call. “I couldn’t do an acting job just to be working,” she says. “It really had to have some soul to it, which Everwood does.”

Cross credits her father, Mark, 80, a retired personnel manager, and mom Janet, 69, a retired teacher, with her psychological bent. “I would ask my dad what he did, and he’d say, I listen to people’s problems.’ In some way what he did for a living is in my genes.”

Why the acting bug bit is more of a mystery. Growing up in Marlborough, between sisters Susan Hett, now 43 and a teacher, and Ellen Cross, 37, a Web designer and musician, Cross’s idea of fun was to form a club with her best friends in her basement, where, she says, “mostly we choreographed songs that we could lip-synch.”

She graduated to high school plays but was confused about the next step. “The sophisticated girlfriend of my next-door neighbor said, ‘Well, of course you’re applying to Juilliard,’ ” Cross recalls. “I didn’t even know what Juilliard was.” She found out and won a half scholarship to the prestigious New York City arts school, paying the rest of the cost by working summers in a shoe factory and a drugstore.

After graduating, Cross tried her luck in LA. “Every day I would think, ‘When am I going to move home?’ ” she says. “Then I met somebody in 1988 and stayed.” The somebody was Harvard-educated actor Richard Jordan, 25 years her senior, who died of a brain tumor in 1993. Cross channeled her grief into her MP role, which she says was “the outlet for all my feelings.” Though she isn’t involved with anyone now, she says, “I’d like to be a wife and mother. I guess I’ll know [Mr. Right] when I meet him.”

While she’s waiting, she’s having a ball with the Everwood cast, settled in Park City near the Salt Lake City set. “Whenever anybody new comes on the scene,” says Tom Amandes, who plays Cross’s brother, “everybody scopes them out. Now she’s one of the family.” When she’s not cozied up by the fireplace in her comfortable condo, Cross is often hiking in the nearby mountains. She says she feels “very blessed right now,” but acting isn’t the final prescription for her. She contemplates going back to school for postgraduate work after Everwood. “It’s kind of ironic,” she says with a smile, “that if I get my Ph.D., I’ll be a real doctor.”

J.D. Reed. Kwala Mandel in Los Angeles