The Voice and Roles of Holly Twyford
If you’ve seen Holly Twyford on stage, talked with her on the phone or during an interview at a coffee shop on 14th Street, or listened to her accept yet another Helen Hayes award for acting, there’s one constant.
It’s her voice.
Twyford’s voice has a compelling resonance. It stands out in a crowd and would be recognized in a crowded post-blackout room. It has the quality of a song you know by heart sung differently every time out. This is not to suggest that there’s anything monotonous about her voice, rather, it’s just another one of her gifts and tools that she brings to every character she’s played, stamping the character as her own.
So, if you see her name on a cast list, you tend to want to go and see the play, even if you weren’t going to go anyway or knew nothing about the play. Her presence probably guarantees that there might be something smart, surprising and moving in the works.
That’s certainly the case with her portrayal of physically and psychologically wounded combat photographer Sarah in Donald Margulies’s “Time Stands Still,” a four-character play about the effects of war in contemporary times at the Studio Theatre through Feb. 12.
Twyford, who is a mainstay of Washington stages, now, like many actors, is booked ahead, so that being in this particular play was something she knew she was going to do last year. She has the luxury, being in demand, to plan ahead and can make her choices with care.
“I’ve worked a lot over the years at Studio Theatre so it’s always been a good experience here,” she said. “The play seemed like a good, intelligent play with many layers to it, and I knew it would be a challenge. I think the work — what the character does — has always fascinated me. The question becomes, why would anybody do this kind of thing, put themselves in harm’s way, be constantly in danger, and those questions resonate in the play.”
“Time Stands Still” is one of the more intelligent, well-written plays you’re likely to encounter this year. Margulies is a smart playwright and Pulitzer Prize winner, interested in relationships in various settings, plus the subject matter — our two overseas wars in the Middle East, how the media covers conflicts and the kind of people that are drawn to that setting professionally — resonate in our lives.
“Sarah isn’t by any means a typical character,” Twyford says. “I mean how can she be, given what she does and the work haunts her and now she has to face choices about what kind of life she wants to live.”
As the play opens, Sarah and her live-in boyfriend, James, a journalist who has written about the wars alongside her, have come home to New York from the wars, after Sarah suffers near-death injuries in the wake of a roadside bomb. She is emotionally as well as physically scarred, but James, too, suffered an emotional breakdown after witnessing women being killed in front of him during a bomb attack.
They return to their friends, Richard, an editor at the magazines which runs their work, and his new, much younger and pregnant Mandy, who works as an events planner.
The play touches you because it’s not a star-oriented play but an ensemble play, where the relationships among the four affect everyone. “You know, Mandy is easy to dismiss, she’s facile, a little shallow, she’s inexperienced and has this cringe-inducing sincerity but Laura [Harris] does wonders with her, she’s really good at getting you to listen to her.”
Sarah’s dilemma becomes a major issue when James wants to marry her and suggests they stay away from the dangers of the wars, settle down and live like real people. He’s ready, but it’s plain to see that, in spite of her injuries or maybe even because of them, she’s pulled by the action and the plight of the people she’s encountered.
“We had a chance to talk to a writer and a photographer in advance of rehearsals,” she said. “They’re amazing people. I don’t know how they do it, to be honest. And it’s all so immediate to us.”
The wars in the Middle East produced some major reporting stars comfortable in combat zones, but also resulted in casualties to photographers, writers, and reporters.
“She has to make a choice,” she said. “I mean not everybody can do this sort of thing. You have to give up other possible lives."
Twyford thought about her own life and choices. “I mean, you have to be a little different to do what we do in the theater, role to role, “ she said. “I don’t mean to suggest that acting is anything like what the characters in the play do. There’s nothing so dangerous, nothing quite so immediate and important and serious. But still.”
Twyford is among a cadre of Washington actors who have chosen to navigate the difficulties and joys of acting, specifically living and working in the Washington area, a rich theatrical environment that remains a little under-recognized. “It’s not for everyone,” she said. “If you’re going to concentrate on local theater, then you’re not going to be a movie star, you’re not going to be famous or rich. But it is rewarding.”
That’s true for Twyford, who grew up in Great Falls, in a house where her parents still live. “They’ve been to everything I’ve been in,” she said. “It’s so amazing and supportive, and there’s that continuity and love there.”
In a group of such regularly excellent actors as Ted Van Griethuysen, Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, Sarah Marshall, Ed Gero and Tana Hicken, to name a few, Twyford is a standout. She’s been referred to as the Meryl Streep of Washington, which, given the quality of Twyford’s work, is a compliment to both.
She has also managed to live a so-called real, family life with her long-time partner Saskia Mooney and their daughter, Helena (named after the lead in Shakespeare’s “All’s Well That Ends Well”). “I’ve been fortunate because I have constants in my life,” she said. “And I’ve been so fortunate in the opportunities I’ve had here to work with so many gifted directors and actors.”
This past year, she directed “Stop/Kiss” a play she performed in a decade earlier, for the No Rules Theater Company, a first for her. She’s collected numerous Helen Hayes Awards for acting (including for playing a dog at Adventure Theater) and won four times, the first time as Juliet.
“With Shakespeare, there’s always the words, the leeway, the poetry, the adventure of exploring roles,” she said. “You don’t ever forget the words or the feelings they inspire.” She has done her share of Shakespeare, working with director Joe Banno at the Folger as Juliet, Hamlet (along with several actors in a multiple-personality Dane), Beatrice and others. She and Tana Hicken worked together twice -- at Theater J in “Lost In Yonkers” and Athol Fugard’s “The Road To Meccah” at the Studio. It’s hard to think of a theater in Washington during the course of two decades and numerous playswhere she hasn’t worked.
Here is what you can count on with Twyford at one of her performances: at some point during the proceedings, you will be surprised, be it comedy, tragedy, contemporary or Verona. At some point, the emerging character becomes hers and, therefore, yours. She will get something out of you, some recognition, a punch in the heart, a laugh (but not a cheap one).
A lot of this happens during the course of “Time Stands Still” with her Sarah. And there, as always, is the voice. You recognize it right away. It’s only later in play that you think of it as Sarah’s voice.
“Time Stands Still” by Donald Margulies, directed by Susan Fenichell, runs through Feb. 12 at the Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005. 202 332 3300. StudioTheatre.org