Democracy Dies in Darkness

Theater Dance | Perspective

You love theater? So do these 12 D.C. stage dynamos. 

By Peter Marks, Nelson Pressley

November 10, 2017 at 11:29 AM

Actress Maria Rizzo. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Really good performers in Washington get an intense workout, appearing in plays by Annie Baker, William Shakespeare and August Wilson, in musicals by Stephen Sondheim and other great composers. So if you're a regular theatergoer in Washington, you surely have seen some of these works — as well as some of the faces on these pages, representing some of the best of an emerging cadre of younger regional talent. 

They crop up in practically every playhouse in the region, from mighty Arena Stage to tiny Forum Theatre and all the large and small companies in between.

We've picked a dozen actors in their 20s and 30s who have impressed us again and again. Mind you, we could have named a dozen others. But this group captured for us the regenerative vitality of theater in the DMV.

Maria Rizzo:  Musical chameleon

A graduate of Catholic University's theater program, Rizzo, 27, has joined that elite squad of actors who have made Signature Theatre a second home. Her musical-theater range is such that she can go from sweet-to-sexy (as she did as Gypsy Rose Lee in "Gypsy") to rough-and-tumble (as Anybodys in "West Side Story"). 

And although she's been called on to perform some classic solo numbers — "Gypsy's" "Let Me Entertain You," "The Miller's Son" (from "A Little Night Music") — she says singing unnerves her. "When I sing I get nervous," she says. "It's still my scariest thing I have to do."

Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs — her Sicilian-born father Sal runs La Cucina, an Italian restaurant in Conshohocken, Pa. — Rizzo performed in high school productions. At Catholic, she sang for the late, legendary Jane Pesci-Townsend. She's eager to go beyond musicals now, as she began to do last year in Audrey Cefaly's two-character play, "The Gulf" at Signature.

"I'm dying to do Shakespeare," she says, adding that she gets great support from her large family, many of whom come "to everything" she's in. Plus bring pizza from La Cucina: "I have a whole pizza in my fridge."
— Peter Marks

Felicia Curry. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Felicia Curry:
Powerhouse performer

Felicia Curry is changing lanes. All five of her Helen Hayes Award nominations, including the one for playing Eponine in Signature Theatre's "Les Miserables," are for musicals. But lately, she's been displaying her chops in straight plays — "Disgraced" at Arena Stage last year, and recently in the sex trafficking drama "Lela & Co." with Factory 449. Director Rick Hammerly chose the drama partly to showcase that Curry, often shining in featured roles, could genuinely carry an evening.

"I was looking for opportunities," says Curry, 39.

The former pageant contestant majored in journalism at the University Maryland with an eye on broadcasting. But after school she learned she was more interested in performing.

"Every show has tapped into exactly what's happening right now," Curry says of her jobs this year, from "Caroline, or Change," "Ragtime" and "An Octoroon" to her current role in "Nina Simone: Four Women" at Arena Stage and the upcoming "Jefferson's Garden" at Ford's.

She's been doing musicals since she was 5. Is she really abandoning song and dance now?

"Never!" Curry says. "But the more I do straight plays, the more I see that as part of my future." — Nelson Pressley

Actor Jon Hudson Odom. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Jon Hudson Odom:
Sought-after and satisfied
 

"The wonderful thing about D.C. is that you can find your way into most doors," says Odom, 31. The doors have swung wide open for Odom, a Wheaton, Ill., native who now lives in Wheaton, Md. He's been in 30 shows since the graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts arrived here in 2011. 

And some of his most memorable work has occurred recently: as Belize, the wisdom-spewing nurse in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" last year at Round House Theatre, and this past summer, a reprise at Woolly Mammoth Theatre of his acclaimed work in multiple roles — some in white face — in Branden Jacob-Jenkins's trenchant and funny satire on race, "An Octoroon."

It all started for him in a Capital Fringe Festival show — "Who Killed Captain Kirk?" — with friends from college, and an invitation from another School of the Arts alumnus, Jeremy Skidmore, to be a client in the local talent agency he organized. 

"The idea of building something here really appealed to me," says this arts-driven son from a family of athletes. "In New York, it's about trying to fit into this huge puzzle. "Here, I could help to create the puzzle, which really inspired me." — P.M.

Thomas Keegan. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Thomas Keegan:
All-American

Tall, handsome and with English professor parents, Keegan has seemed a natural for big American plays such as "Death of a Salesman," "Fool for Love," "Watch on the Rhine" and "Angels in America."

"I waited tables for three months after graduate school," Keegan, 32, says as he and his wife, Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, tag-team watching their 3-year-old son on a playground. "And since then, I haven't had a job that didn't involve acting. That's a great feeling — as [playwright] Jose Rivera put it, to make a living with the honey and perspiration of your mind."

Keegan, who spent two years as a policeman in Dewey Beach, Del., has already begun breaking into TV, and he feels comfortable enough about his place here not to stress about auditions. "If I'm supposed to be that guy, great," Keegan says. "And if it's supposed to be Danny Gavigan or Brandon McCoy, it's going to be one of those guys. And my work will come." — N.P.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan:
Eager to stretch 

Which was Keegan's better gig last year: Maggie the Cat in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" or being part of the pre-Broadway ensemble of the musical "Come From Away"? Keegan won a Helen Hayes Award as best actress for Maggie, and she might find herself in "Come From Away" again as tours evolve and the run continues in New York.

"I would love to do more musicals," says Keegan, 38, who was a competitive dancer in high school. "Only a handful of people cross over. I want to be one of those people."

She arrived in 2010 to study at the Academy for Classical Acting here. She quickly established herself and has started a family with her husband, actor Thomas Keegan. 

"I gained a genuine sense of identity," Keegan says of the past few years of learning and working. "And now acting doesn't have to be the only thing that thrills me." — N.P.

Justin Weaks. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Justin Weaks:
Versatile and classical

Weaks was a gymnast until he was 14, and the 27-year-old performer — recently seen as a wiry gender-fluid man in women's clothing in Mosaic Theater's "Charm" and as a devout associate pastor in Theater J's "The Christians" — says he still has some of the old skills. "I don't have the same flexibility," he allows. "But some of the flips and stuff, I can still do."

Weaks describes himself as "a huge Shakespeare nerd," and he toured with the Olney Theatre-based National Players for a year doing "Romeo and Juliet" and "1984." The entire company was eight people in a truck and a van.

"We're the costume and set crew — everything," Weaks says. "I died as Tybalt, got dragged offstage, and then went to the light board for two scenes."

Contemporary roles have been finding him since breaking in only two years ago with "Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea," and now he's working on "Curve of Departure" at Studio Theatre. Still, "Shakespeare is my foundation," Weaks says. "I'm a classical actor at heart." N.P.

Maggie Wilder. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Maggie Wilder:
Gazing at new horizons

Maggie Wilder loves sitcoms. Mary Tyler Moore made her want to act.

That explains why Wilder, 30, is on a hot streak of funny parts. She was the hysterically naive gentile in Studio Theatre's repeat hit "Bad Jews." She played Avery, the youngest woman in Gina Gionfriddo's modern feminism study "Rapture, Blister, Burn" at Round House Theatre. And she was Honey, the dopey guest in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" at Ford's.

In 2015, she married Doug Wilder, a Hayes Award-winning actor who has lately turned to filmmaking. Screen may be her next move, too. "I am really wanting to be on TV and film," Wilder says. She now has an agent in the new TV hotbed of Atlanta.

In Washington, she has already found a particular niche.

"I am so happy with that," Wilder says, "as long as there are nuggets like Avery, and Dora [a privileged Southern belle] in 'An Octoroon.' As long as there are opportunities to flex that muscle, I'm good. They're a joy to play." — N.P.

Megan Graves. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Megan Graves: Young, scrappy and hungry

The eureka moment for the diminutive Graves came during an acting program she attended at American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., where she watched an established professional and fellow compact person Alyssa Wilmoth play Viola in "Twelfth Night." 

"Oh, that's what a small scrappy actress can do," she remembers thinking. "I hadn't seen a woman I had identified with before."

Looking young for her age but blessed with a seeming preternatural confidence, Graves, 28, reached a career milestone of her own last season, cast at Arena Stage as altruistic daughter Alexandra in Lillian Hellman's viper-filled "The Little Foxes." Marg Helgenberger played her mother, Regina. "The room was so full of powerhouse actors," she says.

Graves, who describes herself as a perfectionist, moved East from Phoenix to Alexandria with her family when she was in middle school. With her degree from Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., she also teaches acting to children 5 and under. "I see how important it is," she says, "for every kid to see themselves on a stage." — P.M.

Laura C. Harris. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Laura C. Harris:
Theater natural

Harris, 32, has worked all over Washington, and not just on stages: voice-over gigs; a steady clerical job she does from home; stints as a "standardized patient," in which medical students diagnose the disease whose symptoms she's paid to emulate.

"Some day," she says, "I would love to be just a full-time actor, in all of its forms."

The Middlebury College graduate from Evanston, Ill., is singularly intuitive, as she demonstrated last year in her turn as Rose, a free-spirited film projectionist prone to romantic misadventures in Baker's "The Flick" at Signature. It was a deep-dive role that affirmed her gift for naturalistic work, the sort in which "you get to just exist onstage with another person who is likewise as fully committed, and then getting to have your insides explode."

 She arrived in Washington 10 years ago with Middlebury's Potomac Theatre Project. It moved to New York, but she stayed and married another D.C. actor, Eric Messner. Of the formidable competition for good parts, she says: "I realized it was a great theater place — and two or three years later, everyone else realized it!" — P.M.

Shannon Dorsey. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Shannon Dorsey: Restlessness paying off

"I just knew I wanted to act since I was 3," says Dorsey, who won't divulge how many years have transpired since then. "You ask my mom. I would make people watch me under the table. She gave me a nickname: 'Figit.' "

The fidgety Dorsey grew up in Washington, raised by a single mom in Takoma, near Coolidge High School. Dance was a passion — "That is in my body," she says — and after graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia, majoring in theater and African American studies, she was eager to dive into theater.

She's done just that back home, distinguishing herself in plays such as "Skeleton Crew" at Studio Theatre and "An Octoroon" at Woolly. She relishes it all. "I have these opportunities to work with some of the most amazing people in this city," she says. — P.M.

Sam Ludwig. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Sam Ludwig:
Sondheim superfan

Ludwig's career almost ran out of gas before it started. Seriously. The Vienna, Va., native was on his way to his first audition, at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, Md., when the needle on his gauge fell to empty. It was his mom, Hollis Holmes, to the rescue, picking up her stranded son and driving him to the tryout, which he aced. 

"She's an amazing woman, and always been supportive of anything I wanted to do," says Ludwig, 30, who's become a mainstay at Signature Theatre, acing other roles, such as the stoker in "Titanic" and lovesick Henrik in "A Little Night Music."

Ludwig, who left Ithaca College after a semester, tried to be a songwriter in New York for a while ("a girlfriend got me up there"), but he eventually gravitated back to Washington, where the work was plentiful and the opportunities multiplied to sing his favorite composer's work. "I really cannot oversell how important Sondheim is to me. More important to me than most heroes' icons are to them," he says. — P.M.

Kevin McAllister. (Marvin Joseph/Washington D.C.)

Kevin McAllister: Breathing music

"My whole life has been falling into the right thing," says McAllister, the golden-throated baritone who thought as a kid he wanted to be a surgeon.

McAllister has made his mark in musicals at Ford's Theatre, starting as a swing in "The Civil War" and taking leading roles in "Violet" and "110 in the Shade." Last year, McAllister played Coalhouse Walker in "Ragtime," richly delivering the crusading musical's anthems of tragedy and injustice.

"That's always been how I breathe," the operatically trained McAllister, 36, says of singing. "It's where I find so much freedom. It's just me and an orchestra. A beautifully written song is just transcendent."

Music was part of the household growing up in Detroit, and he studied voice at Morgan State University. McAllister still loves operatic singing, but musical theater parts have been coming at him since he first did "Ragtime" a decade ago at Toby's Dinner Theater. Now he's playing Daddy Warbucks in "Annie" at the Olney Theatre Center, and he'll be in "The Wiz" at Ford's next spring.

"I don't know that I saw myself in this field," McAllister says. "But I'm definitely glad I'm here." — N.P.


Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" came out in 2014.

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