- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

NEW YORK — Victoria Clark has had steady success onstage without a leading role on Broadway. Until now.

After years of work in New York theater, the Texas-born actress has pulled off that elusive breakout part by returning to her Southern roots. Her role as Margaret Johnson, the charming, conflicted matron in a musical version of “The Light in the Piazza,” has earned her a Tony Award nomination.

The part was not written for Miss Clark, but it could have been. Composer Adam Guettel says he never thought of Miss Clark before music director Ted Sperling brought her to his attention and insisted she could carry the musical, on view at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. For Mr. Guettel, Miss Clark has brought Margaret to life in a way he had not originally conceived.

“She has detail you can’t put into a song — it’s about what she has been through in her life,” he said.

The 45-year-old Miss Clark says she has a confidence in the part — the heroine of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella — because she can borrow from characters she knew as a child growing up in Dallas.

“I drew on grandmothers and aunts for inspiration and the little things they do that make my character,” she says. “I can back my choices with more conviction and take better risks, because I know I am working with the truth.”

Miss Clark grew up the third child of an engineer father and a gerontologist mother, but her voice — noticed by a music teacher in the sixth grade — carried her far from Texas. She trained with prominent voice teachers in Austria while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Yale University. She later landed at New York University’s musical theater graduate program with hope of becoming a director. There she met casting director Ira Weitzman — now musical theater associate producer at Lincoln Center — who later gave Miss Clark her first break on Broadway in 1985, bringing her in as a replacement in “Sundays in the Park With George.”

She turned to acting almost whimsically, when her older brother suggested she join the stage actors union, Actors’ Equity.

“I said OK, but I wanted to do it on a major scale and I didn’t want to have to go to Oklahoma to pay my dues,” Miss Clark recalls.

On Broadway, she has been best known for supporting roles in such productions as “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” and “Titanic.”

“The Light in the Piazza” has transformed her profile, she says, but not her persona: “I have always worked hard, I have always been this devoted, but what is different is the response to my work.”

The response includes the Tony nomination for best actress in a musical, as well as a Drama Desk prize for her performance.

The musical is a love story. Miss Clark’s character, Margaret, has brought her daughter, Clara, to Florence, where she falls in love with a young Italian. Clara, who is younger than her years due to a childhood accident that caused indeterminate brain damage, is tied firmly to Margaret. Kelli O’Hara, who plays Clara, has been nominated for a Tony as featured actress in a musical.

The story revolves around Margaret’s gradual development to a point where she can loosen her hold on her daughter and allow her to find happiness.

“What you are doing is portraying a woman in crisis, who has to learn to let go of her primary relationship and have courage to walk into the unknown with faith that change will be for the better,” Miss Clark says. The unusually subtle dramatic arc puts the weight of the musical on the actress.

“It’s not simple to play a woman who is withholding herself,” Mr. Guettel said. “It’s a two-hour trajectory, and she has to get the pace right.”

But it’s not just her acting.

“She has an enormous instrument with a lot of range,” Mr. Guettel said, noting that Miss Clark is also an accomplished voice teacher.

“She is passionate, a real devotee of theater who wants, above all else, to entertain an audience,” adds actress Megan Mullally, who first met Miss Clark while in the cast of “How to Succeed.” Miss Clark had come in to audition as a replacement for Smitty, the leading lady’s best friend.

“She just mopped the floor with everyone else trying out,” Miss Mullally said. “I’ll never forget how professional she was.”

Her fire may account for the persistence that has finally won her widespread recognition.

“I’ve watched a lot of actors just go home and have babies or get divorces and leave New York,” she says. “I’ve always known I had something important and deep to say as artist, and no one else is going to make sure you have the venue to express that.”

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