The shows they are in could not be more different, but married actors Evan Casey and Tracy Lynn Olivera are both winning rave notices.
“It is Casey’s extraordinary turn that anchors this production,” Post critic Peter Marks wrote about Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winning “The Flick,” the absorbing, low-key, three-hour-plus drama getting its regional premiere at Signature Theatre.
“Maybe the best I’ve seen,” lyricist Tom Jones says of Olivera’s flinty Lizzie in his spirited 1963 musical (with composer Harvey Schmidt and book writer N. Richard Nash) “110 in the Shade,” now at Ford’s Theatre.
Casey and Olivera have established themselves as valuable players in Washington, ably handing a range of parts (typically supporting) in plays and musicals all over town for more than a decade. Yet through the kind of unpredictable twist of fate that most actors live by, right now they are enjoying perhaps the meatiest parts of their careers.
“To get to do all the things you can do in one role doesn’t happen a lot,” says Olivera, sitting with Casey in a Silver Spring coffee shop.
“110 in the Shade,” adapted from Nash’s Depression-era play “The Rainmaker,” is about a Texan woman repeatedly described as “plain” on the cusp of spinsterhood; the dramatic challenges alone of navigating such potentially old-fashioned material are formidable. Wanting a woman’s view on the material, Olivera and Ford’s director Paul R. Tetreault thought of Marcia Milgrom Dodge to direct.
“In the wrong hands,” says Olivera, 37, “this could be deathly misogynistic and lame.”
“Tracy and I shared a brain on this,” Dodge says. The result is a strikingly strong and thoughtful Lizzie, independent but lonely, which is why Jones, 88, calls Olivera “a wonderful actress.” He also notes that she’s “a dynamite singer,” handling the lush, sensitive score with authority. For a honky-tonk number called “Raunchy,” Dodge nudged Olivera to “Patsy Cline that a little bit more.” “Her voice is so elastic,” Dodge says.
“The Flick” confronts audiences with an aggressively slow approach that requires its small cast (three actors, with a bit role for a fourth performer) to settle into the routine cadences of a tiny Massachusetts movie house. Casey, 33, plays Sam, a man in his 30s facing the dead-end nature of his work and grappling with his attraction to a co-worker named Rose. Casey’s focus and inventiveness doing next to nothing taps into the odd fascination of the play, which grows unexpectedly funny with deadpan out-of-left-field punch lines that Casey routinely nails.
“This show has been a particularly special opportunity,” says Casey, who only a few months ago was singing and dancing as the wiseacre Benny Southstreet in the Olney Theatre Center’s “Guys and Dolls.”
Casey and Olivera met in 2004 doing the musical “Allegro” at Signature Theatre, and they both came out of Catholic University (though she was leaving just as he arrived ). Olivera grew up in Waterville, N.Y., and chose Catholic for classical voice training. Casey grew up in Ellicott City and went through CUA’s musical theater program.
Both landed local acting work while still in college, which they say was encouraged by their mentor, the late teacher and performer Jane Pesci-Townsend. Casey still likes what Pesci-Townsend told him when he confided that he’d started seeing Olivera: “Good. You should be dating women, not girls.”
Job offers came steadily for both of them once they got a foot in the door. Olivera says: “So many theaters around here are like little families. Once you’re in their family, they take care of you.” Day jobs were inevitably part of the picture, of course, especially for Olivera.
“A fun game to play,” Casey says, “is just to drive around with Tracy and point to buildings. She can say, ‘I had a job there.’ ”
“It’s fun to play ‘I’ve had that job’ and ‘I’ve lived there,’ ” Olivera adds. She reckons she has had 40 day jobs (among them: dog walker, bartender, makeup artist, pretzel roller), and that she moved 12 times in her 20s.
Olivera relocated to New York briefly more than a decade ago, but she was barely there and still sleeping on a friend’s couch when she suffered a blood clot in the brain. She healed and resumed working in Washington, teaching for a period at Catholic until she went to Broadway for a few months in 2009 with Dodge’s revival of “Ragtime,” first staged and produced by the Kennedy Center.
She acts in plays — “Bachelorette” at Studio Theatre and “Rancho Mirage” at the Olney are recent credits — but Olivera is mostly a musical creature. (“I get to play funny broads that belt,” she says.) A public workshop with legendary Broadway singer Barbara Cook remains one of the magical days in her life: After Olivera sang, Cook whispered her feedback, and then Olivera approached the song with a different understanding. Olivera still won’t reveal what she was told.
“I cried,” Olivera says. “She flipped a switch. In that moment I figured out everything people had been trying to force me to figure out for a long time.”
Though Olivera has amassed five Helen Hayes Award nominations for supporting roles in musicals, she also has spoken frankly about the challenges of matching her skills with roles that casting directors won’t consider her for because of her bigger body type. Casting directors have said off-key things about gaining or losing weight that have made her think, “‘Great. Awesome. Thanks. Bye.’”
“Such garbage,” Olivera says. “Casting directors in New York don’t ever need to think outside the box. Here, people are more than happy to. I can play Fantine [in ‘Les Miserables’ at Signature Theatre], and no one blinks.”
Casey loves musicals and pinpoints the moment he got serious about theater as his junior year in high school, when he dropped baseball to play Curly in “Oklahoma!” (Olivera is delighted to learn that the serious young thespian got his hair permed for the role.) He now toggles between projects like the puckish musical comedy “Avenue Q” at Olney and the harrowing date rape drama “Really Really” at Signature; later this spring he’ll play the title role in Adam Guettel’s “Floyd Collins” at 1st Stage. “It’s a challenge to keep a foot in both markets,” he says, “edgy plays, or straight plays in general, and musicals.”
Casey can’t touch Olivera’s range when it comes to day jobs, but since 2008 he has had a semi-regular gig with the longtime political satire group The Capitol Steps. He has played Mitt Romney, Barack Obama and, lately, Bernie Sanders. “He gives you a lot to work with,” Casey says of the feisty senator from Vermont who is running for president.
Soon Casey and Olivera’s son will turn 2; Olivera was seven months pregnant when she appeared in Signature’s recent “Gypsy,” which turned out to be an answer for how to make the stripper Electra funny. “She’s fearless,” Dodge says, still marveling at Olivera’s moxie in that part.
The couple settled in Wheaton the year they got married, 2009; Olivera says her New York actor friends envy the very idea of having a back yard. She and Casey come across as grounded: they don’t necessarily expect this lovely “Flick”/“110” moment to turn their world upside down. They do expect to keep acting.
“I’m not as good at anything else,” Olivera declares.
Casey says, “Me, neither.”
110 in the Shade Through May 14 at at Ford’s Theatre, 511 10 St. NW. Tickets: $22-$71. Call 800-982-2787 or visit fords.org.
The Flick Through April 24 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Tickets: $40-$97. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.