PORT ANGELES — Standing ovations, a Peace Corps lapel pin and a bear hug as she took her bow: These are gifts “Miss Lillian” has received around the continent.
Miss Lillian in the form of Carol Swarbrick Dries, that is.
Swarbrick Dries, who is a Broadway, television and film actress living in Sequim, will bring her original one-woman show — written with Jim Dries — “More than a President’s Mother: The Lillian Carter Story” to her home county at 7 p.m. this Saturday.
The show will be at the Port Angeles High School Performing Arts Center, 304 E. Park Ave.
Tickets are $10 for age 14 and younger and $23 for general admission; outlets include The Joyful Noise Music Center at 112 W. Washington St., Sequim; Port Book and News at 104 E. First St., Port Angeles, and jffa.org.
The single performance, Swarbrick Dries said, is a challenge.
Swarbrick Dries has portrayed Lillian Gordy Carter, Jimmy Carter’s mom, at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo.; in The Villages, Fla.; the Key City Playhouse in Port Townsend and on Theatre Row in New York City. That’s where the ovation, lapel pin and hug happened.
Those were also relatively snug venues, several of which could fit inside the 1,100-plus-seat Port Angeles High School Performing Arts Center, where Miss Lillian is about to appear.
Both Carter and Swarbrick Dries are up to challenges, if their lives are any indication. Miss Lillian was a nurse, a Peace Corps volunteer who joined at age 68, and an outspoken advocate for civil rights.
Swarbrick Dries has appeared in numerous musicals and dramas including “The Sound of Music,” “Oliver!” and “Damn Yankees” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, “Side by Side by Sondheim” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” on Broadway and, in Sequim and Port Angeles, “The Guys,” a play about New York City firemen in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.
Also in New York City, her performance as Miss Lillian won the best biographical show award at the 2016 United Solo play festival.
“The Lillian Carter Story” has come to Clallam County’s largest venue thanks to an ultra-short performance given at the Arts Northwest booking conference last fall.
“She did a scintillating 12 minutes,” said Dan Maguire, executive director of the Juan de Fuca Foundation for the Arts. At that conference in Tacoma, he watched Swarbrick Dries in a showcase, and snapped her up for the foundation’s Season Concerts series.
“Fundamentally, I booked her because of her talent. She is amazing,” said Maguire, who’d also seen the actress in several 5th Avenue Theatre shows.
In Lillian, Swarbrick Dries finds renewed inspiration. In the past seven years she has traveled to Plains, Ga., a number of times, to have lunch, go fishing and attend church with Miss Lillian’s family, including Jimmy and his wife Rosalynn.
“I feel I know her intimately, thanks to the stories from the Carters,” she said.
And so the show, along with the talkback that follows it, is leavened by Swarbrick Dries’ admiration for Miss Lillian.
“This is a woman who thinks outside the box,” Swarbrick Dries said. Lillian Gordy Carter was born in 1898 in Georgia — and was a steadfast believer in equal treatment of all people regardless of color and social standing.
“That’s attractive to me,” the actress said.
“How did that happen?”
Lillian’s husband, James Earl Carter Sr., did not share her feelings toward African Americans. When her friends who were black came to visit Lillian, they would sit together in the front room. Earl would just leave the house.
“Earl was a respectful man,” said Swarbrick Dries, “but he was more of his time; he was more imprisoned by his time and place than was she.”
Lillian allowed her husband to be who he was. He, in turn, allowed her to be herself. How many Southern women could establish that kind of understanding with their husbands back then, Swarbrick Dries wonders.
“How many could, now?”
In the play, the audience learns about Lillian’s passion for the Dodgers, whose roster in her day included Jackie Robinson. Then there’s a scene in which a girl with leprosy teaches Lillian about transformation, and one in which she reaches out to a young man filled with despair.
“I want to show Miss Lillian as vulnerable, as strong, as funny, as a user of salty language,” Swarbrick Dries said; above all she was a nurturer, a woman who cared for those around her, whether she was at home in Georgia or with people of another culture, far from home.
The actress emphasizes that hers is not a political piece. It is Lillian’s life story, which she believes is larger than a party or a president.
There was one time after a performance when an audience member asked what Miss Lillian would say about the current happenings in Washington, D.C.
“Not going to touch that,” was Swarbrick Dries’ response.
“My motivation,” she said, “is to introduce you to this woman who was quite remarkable.
“It’s important to tell this story of one who was a success as a woman, as a mother, and who lived a life of service.”
For information, call the Juan de Fuca Foundation at 360-457-5411 and see lilliancarter.net.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.