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Tackling the Challenges of a Long Run

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"What's great about acting in theatre -- especially after a long run -- is that you can bring events from your own life into your performance," notes Victoria Clark, who has played the lead in "The Light in the Piazza" for more than three years during the musical's various incarnations on its road to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.

"My son has grown up and I've been through a lot," continues the Dallas native in her dressing room. "The most interesting thing is discovering where the character and I intersect. Vicky is Margaret and Margaret is Vicky. In fact, I bring the events of each day into my performance. I never do the same performance twice."

Undoubtedly that keeps Clark's work fresh for herself (not to mention her fellow actors) as well as the audience. Nonetheless, a long run can take its toll, regardless of the accolades she has won for her performance -- including Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle awards.

"Stamina is an issue," she admits. "And I don't believe in pacing myself. I don't give Wednesday matinee audiences less than any other audience. I give 110 percent of myself every performance. But I rest, take vitamins, work out, and try to spend as much time outside as possible."

In person, Clark evokes a youthful woman who exercises and is wholly comfortable in her skin. Indeed, she is so far removed from her onstage alter ego, Margaret -- a corseted, properly clad Southern lady if ever there was one -- she is literally not recognizable. Her onstage transformation is physically stunning. But then the two women exist in galaxies far apart: Clark is utterly contemporary, while Margaret is a woman rooted in the 1950s. Her poise, her elegance, even the way she flirts is of another era.

And the play's time frame -- specifically, the manners and physical restraints peculiar to the period -- posed a bit of a stumbling block, at least initially. "I had to ask my mother about the behavior of women in the 1950s," Clark recalls. "When and where did women wear gloves? When they took them off, did they hold them or put them in their pocketbooks? I also had to remember that women did not cross their legs except at their ankles, and I had to get used to wearing a girdle. That girdle affects the way you move and speak and sing." She adds, "The costumes and hair have given me tremendous clues to character."

More central, of course, is Margaret's emotional core. "She is close to my heart with her sense of humor, compassion, passion, sexuality, and joyfulness," Clark observes. "But what has most prepared me for playing Margaret is my 24/7 role as mother."

But Margaret is not just any mother. She is the mother of a minimally brain-damaged daughter, Clara -- a 26-year-old with the mental development of a 12-year-old -- and faces some rough times, no more so than when she and her daughter take a trip to Florence. There Clara falls in love with a young Italian man, who loves her in turn; the two make plans to be married.

Margaret attempts to keep the two young lovers apart, agonizing over whether Clara is in any position to be a wife or, more serious, a mother. But is Margaret simply overprotecting the girl for her own selfish reasons?

"This is a play about learning to let go," notes Clark. "And that takes courage. Clara is Margaret's primary relationship. Still, we all live through our children and Margaret wants Clara to have a loving experience with a man. She thinks Clara can handle it, but she knows her husband does not. Throughout, she is struggling with the morality of what she's doing, and she is afraid of her husband's reaction."

"The Light in the Piazza" marks Clark's first starring role on Broadway, although she is by no means a novice on the Great White Way. Other Broadway credits include "Titanic," "Urinetown," and "Sunday in the Park With George," along with revivals of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," "Cabaret," and "Guys and Dolls." She has made appearances at such regional institutions as the Goodman Theatre, Long Wharf Theatre, Intiman Theatre, and Goodspeed Opera House. And she has several television and radio shows under her belt, including Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion."

God-Given Gifts

Clark comes from an impressive family: Her father is an electrical engineer who has designed an electric car and solar heating panels, and her mother has a Ph.D. in gerontology and was formerly employed by the American Association of Retired Persons. Both parents are interested in the arts.

Early on, Clark toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, switching gears only after spending a summer during high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree at Yale, where she majored in music composition, a highly theoretical and academic course of training, she recalls.

"I didn't really start acting until I was 26," she says. "For the first four years after I graduated, I was writing and directing." For a time she served as director of the Lyrics & Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y. "I also took off three to four years after I had my son. But I've always had opportunities. I can take credit for hard work, but I also had a gift that I can't take credit for. God gave me the need to communicate, a strong constitution, and a beautiful voice."

Clark is an active member of the United Methodist Church: "When I'm not performing, I'm doing benefits for the church, and I direct the Christmas pageant each year."

She is also a dedicated teacher, believing it is her "responsibility to train the next generation of actors and singers and show them that it's okay to take performing seriously. You can be an intelligent person and choose acting as a profession, despite the bad side effect of rejection. You just have to keep working," she advises, and not worry about glitz, glamour, and money.

The craving for fame and fortune has had no role in Clark's career plans, she insists, adding that she is delighted just to be doing what she's doing. And if life continues along the same lines, "I will be the most contented old lady who ever lived."

Over the years, Clark has played a range of characters. "No one would say, 'That's a Vicky Clark type,' " she says. She has suffered neither from typecasting in the past nor ageism in the present: "I played character roles in high school and now I feel younger and more beautiful than ever. I can play older or younger women. I actually would like to play a role that resembles me."

Nevertheless, three years down the road Clark continues to marvel at the resonance that "The Light in the Piazza" has for viewers, who are taken with the play's themes of "forgiveness and love and moving on," she says. She describes a letter she received from a man who had a troubled relationship with his mother -- in some ways not unlike Margaret's relationship with Clara -- and was unable to resolve his feelings even years after her death.

"He said the play took years of burden off of him," she says. "For the first time, he was able to forgive her. This play is cathartic. It's about family and taking risks in order to fall in love again." She paraphrases playwright Craig Lucas, who wrote the show's book:

"He said -- and I agree -- that audiences should leave the theatre having fallen in love with life and being able to find beauty in traditional ways. A sunset, for example."

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