Carol Swarbrick Dries has been leading a double life of sorts.
A veteran of screens and stages all over the nation, she’s invested much of the past few years researching, studying and ultimately portraying former President Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian Carter.
Still, her newest take on the historical figure — presenting “Lillian Carter, The Lionmaker” at Port Townsend’s Key City Public Theatre later this month — is daunting. Instead of doing a reading of Carter’s life, as in the previous production of “Lilly,” Swarbrick Dries is doing the one-woman show all from memory.
“I’m very excited about it. A month ago, I was terrified,” Swarbrick Dries says. “It’s hugely different — there’s nobody to toss me a cue.”
She adds a disclaimer, though: “I’m always nervous (even) if I’m doing a show for a fourth time.”
What started as a birthday wish turned into a truly life-changing series of meetings. Seven years ago, Swarbrick Dries recalls asking her husband Jim if he could meet anyone, a famous figure or not, and he named Jimmy Carter. Pull strings as she might, Swarbrick Dries couldn’t make it happen.
But a bit of fortune was on the couple’s side.
In 2011, Swarbrick Dries collaborated with playwright Richard Broadhurst — a professional actor and writer — on a one-woman show, developing a script specifically for her. After he agreed, a number of historical women were considered for the project but it was Lillian Carter who stood out in Dries’ mind.
Out of the meeting developed “Lilly,” a production that took audience members back to the early 1980s, shortly after President Carter’s presidency and before the death of his mother. As Lillian Carter in her golden years, Swarbrick Dries detailed her life, flirtation with and marriage to Earl Carter, her family and the presidency of her son — who once described his mother as “a remarkable woman,” penning a 2008 biography of the same name.
“In my own life experiences, it’s so easy to make a person a saint,” Swarbrick Dries says of Lillian Carter. “But she was more fun than a saint.”
A character with plenty of character
Lillian Carter was active in civil rights and was considered a forerunner of the movement in the South, accepting African Americans as equals. She also is known for her contribution to nursing in her home state of Georgia, as a Peace Corps volunteer — she joined at the age of 68 — and for writing two books during the Carter presidency.
She and businessman James Earl Carter had four children, Jimmy being the eldest.
“She’s just a great character who spoke her mind,” Swarbrick Dries said in an a 2011 interview with the Sequim Gazette. “This is an amazing woman who most people just don’t know enough about.”
During a trip in October of that year to meet the former president and his wife, Rosalynn, the Drieses learned things about Lillian Carter from friends and family that can’t be found in most books. An encounter with a roomful of Lillian Carter’s friends opened the couple’s eyes.
“All these stories … Miss Lillian became so much more real,” Swarbrick Dries says. “She has become a fuller, earthier, more nurturing woman,”
Along with the stories of the nurturing mother came the anecdotes, from her love for professional wrestling — “She thought it was real,” Swarbrick Dries says — to her (mild) cursing to her passion for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a pro baseball team.
The best part about playing Lillian Carter? “Her authenticity,” Swarbrick Dries says. “There’s no veneer. I find that enormously admirable.”
When they first arrived in Plains, Ga., the Drieses weren’t entirely sure if they were going to meet and talk to Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter or if they simply were getting a photograph with them after a Sunday school session. But Rosalynn Carter recognized Swarbrick Dries, sparking a conversation and initial meeting.
Since then, as Swarbrick Dries and company developed “Lilly,” they’ve been in contact with the Carters and have met on three occasions.
“President and Mrs. Carter have been incredibly gracious with their time,” Swarbrick Dries says.
The bigger picture
After each meeting, Swarbrick Dries says, the picture of Lillian Carter gets fuller with more dimensions.
“We realized we needed to make significant changes to the script,” she says.
Enter a new production team. Swarbrick Dries and husband Jim are teaming with director/writer James Rocco and writer Jeffrey Scott of The Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn., on “Lillian Carter, The Lionmaker.”
All four had contributions in rewriting the script, she says.
Swarbrick Dries got the first version of the nearly complete script in July. She says she works on the script for an hour to an hour-and-a-half each day, either going straight through the piece or starting at a part that needs some attention and working her way around to completion. Her husband Jim will help with many of the in-home rehearsals.
While the anecdotes about Lillian Carter are interesting, Swarbrick Dries says the new show will focus on Carter’s nurturing side.
“Lillian Carter, The Lion-maker” will have accoutrements such as sound effects and lighting, but it’s mostly Lillian telling stories, Swarbrick Dries says.
“I think the play will go places,” she says, “but if it doesn’t, what a journey it has already been.”
‘Lillian Carter, The Lionmaker’
One-woman show starring Carol Swarbrick Dries
Directed by: James Rocco
Dates: Aug. 27-29
Venue: Key City Public Theatre, Port Townsend
Times: All shows 7:30 p.m.
On the web: www.keycitypublictheatre.org
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.