Yes, she was nervous — more than she expected, Carol Swarbrick Dries of Sequim said, letting out a big, musical laugh.
Oh, she’s been on the stage in New York City before — in four Broadway musicals, mind you.
And here she was on 42nd Street’s Theatre Row last Saturday night, starring in her own production: a play she created along with her husband, Jim Dries.
“Lillian Carter: More than a President’s Mother,” Swarbrick Dries’ one-woman show, was selected for New York’s United Solo Theatre Festival, the largest event of its kind in the world.
Dressed in a simple shirtwaist, Swarbrick Dries drew applause as she walked onto the spartan stage. For the next hour, it was just the actor and the spotlight.
She became Lillian: mother of President Jimmy Carter and his siblings, Gloria, Billy and Ruth; wife and widow of Earl Carter; outdoorswoman, nurse and Peace Corps volunteer.
“I was never accused of being afraid to be myself,” she said.
This was nothing like Swarbrick Dries’ other New York City shows, with their lavish music and high-stepping performers.
It was also nothing like the Readers Theatre Plus productions she has graced in Sequim, such as the musical “Side by Side by Sondheim.”
This was just the woman, alone on stage, using words and a few subtle changes in the light to tell her story.
She took her audience on a trip: to Plains, Ga., where she went to nursing school; to India where she served in the Peace Corps; to the White House with her son’s family; on state missions to funerals overseas; and finally, back to Plains, where she loved to fish.
Fishing was the one thing that gave her a sense of peace, Lillian has said.
Swarbrick Dries’ path to this stage has been a fortuitous one. A veteran performer — in theater as well as movies and television — she wanted to develop a show of her own, paying tribute to another full-grown woman. As she researched Lillian Carter’s life, it resonated like no one else’s.
A little over five years ago, Swarbrick Dries made a short video of the play’s early version and sent it to the Carter Center in Atlanta, not really expecting to hear anything back.
At home in Sequim, she received a letter from Jimmy Carter, inviting her to Plains “to meet more of the family.” Thus began a series of invitations and visits to Miss Lillian’s beloved Pond House there, where Jimmy and Rosalynn still go fishing.
Both Swarbrick Dries and Jim Dries spent time with the Carters, listening to stories of Lillian, and together, they co-wrote “More than a President’s Mother,” knitting those stories into the play.
The audience hears how she fell in love with Earl Carter and how she coped with his death from pancreatic cancer, about her work as a nurse and teacher in a village in India, and how she met the Pope and called him “Honey.”
In Lillian’s soft Georgia drawl, Swarbrick Dries crisscrosses the spectrum of emotion. Recalling the day she watched Jackie Robinson’s first Major League Baseball game, she beams. Speaking of her husband’s death, her face crumples.
“I thought Carol was superb. She completely disappeared into the character,” said audience member Lisa Verdi, a real estate broker at Sotheby’s in New York City.
“The writing was filled with emotion … I left wanting more of Lillian.”
This real-life character impressed accountant Chuck Krogslund of Middletown, N.Y., too.
“I wish my history classes from high school and college were this interesting,” he said. “What a fantastic show.”
Prior to her United Solo Theatre Festival performance, Swarbrick Dries presented her one-woman play in Port Angeles and at venues around the country, including the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Mo.
She hopes to continue bringing Lillian to American theaters, auditoriums and festivals.
People used to ask Lillian if her son’s presidential inauguration was the best day of her life.
“I’ve had so many best days,” she replies.
As Swarbrick Dries took her bow, flashing another Lillian smile, she was met with a standing ovation.