A rare vor­tex of D.C. stars, on one stage

Three vet­eran ac­tresses — Robi­nette, Schraf, Twyford — per­form­ing at Ford’s

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS - BY NEL­SON PRESS­LEY

A haz­ard of be­ing a Washington stage ac­tress: It can iso­late you from your fe­male peers.

“ There’s this pow­er­ful core of women of a cer­tain age in the Washington theater com­mu­nity who don’t in­ter­sect very of­ten,” says ac­tress Kimberly Schraf.

Schraf, a 25-year vet­eran of Washington theater, is get­ting a rare chance to act with two pil­lars of the scene, Nancy Robi­nette and Holly Twyford. The three women are shar­ing the stage at Ford’s The­atre in Hor­ton Foote’s “ The Car­pet­bag­ger’s Chil­dren,” swap­ping mono­logues as they play Texan sib­lings look­ing back at the com­plex­i­ties of love, landown­ing and their op­por­tunis­tic daddy’s stern legacy.

Twyford, nod­ding to­ward Robi­nette, says: “We’ve never done a show to­gether.” Twyford and Schraf fig­ure they’ve been on­stage to­gether only once be­fore. Schraf says she’s un­der­stud­ied Robi­nette sev­eral times, but has been cast with her in only a hand­ful of pro­duc­tions.

“Men have it eas­ier,” Robi­nette says. “I’m gonna put it out there: Men have more roles.”

Twyford says, “A play with just three women is re­mark­able. And three women over 40 is re­mark­able, too.”

Thanks on this oc­ca­sion are partly due to Foote, author of “ The Trip to Boun­ti­ful” (which will be re­vived in March at Bethesda’s Round House The­atre with an African Amer­i­can cast). The late Foote had a rep­u­ta­tion for cre­at­ing in­trigu­ing

— Holly Twyford

fe­male roles; Schraf says, “He does write a great Texas woman. And the men tend to be a lit­tle paler.”

Iron­i­cally, even as “ The Car­pet­bag­ger’s Chil­dren” is bring­ing these per­form­ers to­gether, it en­forces a cer­tain dis­tance. Foote’s 2002 drama is built of mono­logues that in­ter­lock but only briefly over­lap into di­a­logue. The sis­ters tell the fam­ily story from in­di­vid­ual me­mory, un­wind­ing the tale one at a time.

“We have six lines to­gether,” Robi­nette jokes.

It seems un­likely and a touch un­fair that their paths haven’t crossed more of­ten, given the years these per­form­ers have worked in the same cir­cles. Twyford, a com­par­a­tive new­comer, made her de­but in the early 1990s, and has since won Helen Hayes Awards for ev­ery­thing from high con­tem­po­rary com­edy (“The Lit­tle Dog Laughed” last year at Sig­na­ture The­atre) to clas­si­cal tragedy (as the doomed, jeans-wear­ing hero­ine in “Romeo and Juliet” at the Fol­ger The­atre in 1998).

Schraf is a stal­wart whose star has risen lately: She helped set the savvy tone for Ford’s sur­pris­ingly breezy “Sab­rina Fair” last fall, and she roped in her first Hayes nom­i­na­tions in sup­port­ing roles the last two years (for the in­tensely racy “Mea­sure for Plea­sure” at Woolly Mam­moth and for “Show Boat” at Sig­na­ture The­atre).

Robi­nette, the grand dame

Robi­nette, of course, is the doyenne of Washington ac­tresses, a 16-time Hayes nom­i­nee and five time win­ner who broke in nearly 30 years ago and whose ca­reer par­al­lels the com­ing-of-age of Washington theater. Robi­nette started her ca­reer late — when her son, now 38, was 7 years old.

“I wish I had known ear­lier that it was pos­si­ble to be an ac­tor,” she says, dur­ing an in­ter­view with the ac­tresses at the down­town church that Ford’s uses as a re­hearsal hall. A pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Kansas had of­fered en­cour­age­ment: “Just a gen­tle, ‘You should do this,’ ” Robi­nette re­calls. “Noth­ing more than that.” Re­turn­ing to Washington, where she grew up, Robi­nette be­gan tak­ing classes with Joy Zinoman at the Stu­dio The­atre.

“I felt like I needed to go back to who I used to be when I’d stud­ied in school,” Robi­nette says. The 1980s were a brave new time for emerg­ing troupes. “A lot of peo­ple were hook­ing up to see how far they could go with this work. So I feel for­tu­nate that I caught that wave. But I didn’t call my­self an ac­tor for the long­est time.” The pay wasn’t great, of course, and day jobs — typ­i­cally of­fice temp work— were a ne­ces­sity for years.

By night, Robi­nette, equally com­fort­able be­ing dotty or fe­ro­cious, knocked out au­di­ences in de­mand­ing, some­times wacko com­edy-dra­mas at Woolly (“Fat Men in Skirts”), Stu­dio (Martin McDon­agh’s “ The Beauty Queen of Leenane”) and Round House (Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Vir­ginia Woolf”). She drew more con­fi­dence from classes with the much-ad­mired Arena ac­tor Stan­ley An­der­son, and she grad­u­ally broke in with Arena and, fi­nally, the Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany.

Still, the ground be­neath her feet was shaky enough that by the be­gin­ning of the last decade Robi­nette got an agent and re­lo­cated to New York for a pe­riod. She was never off Washington stages for long, though, and play­ing Birdie op­po­site El­iz­a­beth Ashley’s Regina in Lil­lian Hell­man’s “ The Lit­tle Foxes” at the Shake­speare The­atre in 2002 turned out to be a new level of tri­umph. “ The agency took me se­ri­ously,” she says, “and that felt like a big sea change in terms of wider au­di­ence.”

Fam­ily fac­tors led Robi­nette back to the D.C. area, where she lives with her hus­band. “I think I have a fierce pride in the fact that I’ve been able to cob­ble this would-be artis­tic life,” Robi­nette says. “And I think a lot of peo­ple in town are, too — that move­ment, we’re all fiercely proud, is how I would char­ac­ter­ize it.”

Robi­nette, hav­ing to move on to an­other show, was re­placed by Schraf in Stu­dio’s hit drama “Frozen” in 2006, a near-con­ver­gence that Schraf calls “ the wildest ride

“A play with just three women is re­mark­able. And three women over 40 is re­mark­able, too.”

ofmy life.” Schraf learned the part — which was sub­stan­tial enough that Robi­nette would earn a lead ac­tress Hayes nom­i­na­tion for it— in nine days, and the sub­sti­tu­tion drew a rare sec­ond look at the pro­duc­tion from The Post’s Peter Marks, who called the ac­tresses’ dif­fer­ently shaded per­for­mances “nearly equally ef­fec­tive.”

Schraf, the tough broad

Schraf, who Twyford notes “ has the lion’s share” of the ma­te­rial in “ The Car­pet­bag­ger’s Chil­dren,” grad­u­ated from St. John’s great books pro­gram in An­napo­lis and then briefly helped start a small com­pany out­side her home town of Pitts­burgh. Lured by friends, she came to Washington on New Year’s Day 1984 in­tend­ing to act. Like Robi­nette, Schraf stud­ied with An­der­son (his class is where they met) and with Zinoman, landed her first gig at the Stu­dio in 1987’s “As Is.” There was one year where noth­ing came her way, but oth­er­wise Schraf — who jug­gles a host of non-act­ing com­mit­ments and has been with ac­tor Craig Wal­lace for 17 years — has kept busy.

“I think I’ve played a lot of ram­rod, straight and strong and tough broads,” says Schraf, whose cred­its in­clude “ The Women” both at Stu­dio in 1991 and at Arena in 1999. “Gals. But it’s that yin yang of where is the crack— or the ache or the loss — un­der the ve­neer. And I think I’ve been lucky in that the pat­tern of women, of late, has been di­verse.”

Twyford, the phoenix

Di­ver­sity has been thrust upon Twyford ever since her emer­gence with the Con­sent­ing Adults troupe in the early 1990s. She be­gan in the wig depart­ment at Arena Stage. “Some­body said to me, ‘If you ever want to act here, you have to leave the cos­tume shop,’ ” Twyford says. “And they were right.”

Soon she had bit parts at Arena and more sub­stan­tial chances that in­cluded play­ing the Katharine Hep­burn role in “Desk Set” at Stu­dio and a slice of Ham­let when the Dane was psy­cho­log­i­cally quar­tered — played by four per­form­ers — at the Fol­ger. Twyford can tell funny sto­ries about the hu­mil­i­a­tion of be­ing an ex­tra on Hollywood projects shot here, but she can also tell about be­ing so gen­er­ally burned out af­ter the bleak Rus­sian drama “Black Milk” at Stu­dio in 2005 that she stopped act­ing for a few years.

“You sort of get on this roll of need­ing to say yes to ev­ery­thing,” Twyford says. “And I wasn’t fo­cus­ing on any­thing in my per­sonal life. It was too much. I had a long dis­cus­sion with an­other ac­tress in town about this who has since stopped act­ing com­pletely, I think. And she said, ‘I know ex­actly what you’re talk­ing about.’ ”

Yet last year, Twyford, who grew up in Great Falls and didn’t make the cut af­ter two years in the Bos­ton Uni­ver­sity act­ing pro­gram (she then trans­ferred to the more gen­eral theater stud­ies), not only won the Hayes Award for out­stand­ing lead ac­tress, she was nom­i­nated three times in the cat­e­gory. Last fall, she romped drunk­enly through the far­ci­cal “A Fox on the Fair­way.” In May, she will make her Shake­speare The­atre Com­pany de­but as Michael Kahn di­rects her in Harold Pin­ter’s “Old Times.” How did she go from burned out to all this?

“I don’t know,” she says eas­ily. “Peo­ple keep call­ing.”

She ex­pands: “Since He­lena”— Twyford’s 3-year-old daugh­ter with long­time part­ner Saskia Mooney— “I can sort of man­age it a lit­tle bit, be­cause I don’t ever do any­thing that over­laps.” Over­laps are when ac­tors re­hearse the next show by day while play­ing the cur­rent show at night.

The ques­tion is put to all three ac­tors as to whether Washington theater is us­ing these per­form­ers in the fullest, best sense? Robi­nette vol­un­teers: “It could give us lead roles [in the biggest the­aters]. It’s re­ally time. . . . I would like to be able to au­di­tion against [New York-based ac­tress] Kath­leen Chal­fant, for in­stance. I would like the op­por­tu­nity to have that di­rec­tor see both of us.” Why isn’t it hap­pen­ing? “Name,” Twyford sug­gests. “The per­ceived need of the star to get the butts in the seats. . . . I guess they just don’t think we’ll sell the tick­ets.” All three per­form­ers chafe briefly against the la­bel “ lo­cal,” sug­gest­ing that it’s health­ier to sim­ply think of ac­tors as ac­tors.

At the same time, it was Schraf who ear­lier spoke of the plea­sures of work­ing with old friends, which was true for much of the “Sab­rina Fair” com­pany: “It’s kind of an un­der­pin­ning. That was re­ally lovely, and it’s lovely about this, too. You have some­thing warm around you.”

PHO­TOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

PIL­LARS OF THE STAGE: Kimberly Schraf, left, Nancy Robi­nette andHolly Twyford, in a scene from “ The Car­pet­bag­ger’s Chil­dren” at Ford’s The­atre. TheHor­ton Foote play is giv­ing the three vet­eran ac­tresses a rare chance to per­form to­gether.

SEA­SONED CAST: Twyford, left, says she and Robi­nette, seated, have never done a show to­gether. Twyford and Schraf fig­ure they’ve been on­stage to­gether only once be­fore.

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