Tricia McCauley was a luminous actress, a master herbalist, a gardener, a yogi. She also was a spiritual guide and a free therapist, usually over a glass of red wine.
On Tuesday, McCauley’s disparate D.C. communities were bound in grief over the violent murder of a woman known best for her serenity.
McCauley, 46, disappeared on her way to a Christmas dinner Sunday and was found beaten and strangled in her car early Tuesday morning.
“She was always seeking a kind of balance between her different energies and her different interests,” said Mosaic Theater Artistic Director Ari Roth, who directed McCauley at Theater J. “She radiated light and fierce determination.”
That joy and resolve had been on display since her acting career began almost two decades ago.
Severe food allergies made performing difficult for McCauley. Before one performance as the lead in “Anna Karenina,” she suffered an attack. Sobbing, McCauley arrived at the theater with puffy lips and eyes that had nearly swollen shut. The cast was small and she had no understudy.
“She didn’t know how she could go out and play Anna Karenina, who’s supposed to be this pinnacle of beauty,” recalled Steven Carpenter, who met her during that show.
McCauley did anyway.
She may have looked hideous that night, but “she was beautiful,” Carpenter said. In “Anna Karenina” he played her paramour Vronsky; they fell for each other and briefly dated.
He was not the only actor in Washington to sense in McCauley a magnetic vitality that came through in her beaming smile and infectious laugh.
“Everybody had a crush on her,” said Jason McCool, who met her playing trivia with a group of actors in Silver Spring, Md. “I remember seeing her across the bar and thinking, ‘Who is that?’ And then I got to know her and realized her beauty was the least interesting thing about her.”
Tolstoy’s fatalistic heroine aside, the small and sprightly McCauley usually played the cheerful ingenue.
In fact, Lawrence Redmond recalled, she was excited to play Anna because for once, she could invite her parents to a performance.
“‘I’m not showing anything!” he recalled her saying. “I’m completely clothed for the entire show!”
She was an Air Force brat whose parents lived far away in Europe and then Oregon, American University classmate Jennifer Ambrosino recalled, leading McCauley to lean heavily on her D.C. friends as family. She always spent Christmas in the city, at the potluck dinner she had planned to attend last weekend.
“She went through a period when we were in college where she had half her head shaved and wore combat boots and was really mad at the world and rebelling against her childhood,” Ambrosino said. But in theater and then in yoga and herbalism, McCauley became grounded. “I think she was in the best place she had been in years.”
Friends said it took McCauley years to figure out which foods triggered her allergic reactions. But that suffering sparked the interest in diet and herbal medicine that became her new career. She got a master’s degree in herbal medicine and grew herbs in a community garden in Bloomingdale, the D.C. neighborhood where she lived. She made lip balm and bath salts under the name “Leafyhead Lotions and Potions,” and beard oil for her neighborhood’s hirsute hipster men.
She trained and then taught classes at Bloomingdale’s Yoga District, where “her classes were so loved, and she was so loved,” owner Jasmine Chehrazi said. “She just made it seem so natural; she was enlightened.”
Michael Dove, the artistic director of Forum Theatre, said that although the move may have seemed surprising for a successful actress, it made sense for McCauley.
“It just felt like a way for her to be a more direct caretaker, a healer — that was always her intention in every relationship,” he said. “I thought it was the reason she got into theater, and it was a way to approach that hands on. The work was always about communication.”
Dove remembers that when he met her at a party in 2003, he was “on fire,” telling her his plan to lie about his age — 21 — to be taken seriously as a director.
“She had this amazing way of talking me down and telling me those were stupid ideas without telling me they were stupid,” he said. She sketched for him the history of the D.C. theater community, how the theaters he considered too big had started small and how every company was constantly growing and changing. “It wasn’t about paying your dues, but it was about finding your place.”
But McCauley also had a goofy side. During a 2003 production of George Bernard Shaw’s “The Philanderer,” actor Conrad Feininger would briefly cross behind the set, out of the audience’s view. McCauley and the other actors were determined to make him laugh during his brief trip backstage. They tried tinfoil hats and funny faces. Finally they set up a table to play cards, in their Victorian costumes. When Feininger came backstage, they were still at the table playing — but stark naked.
“I fell on the floor,” Feininger recalled. “Nothing has ever topped that.”
Redmond recalled that an event at Arena Stage in 2012, McCauley told him, “This is my tribe. I need to come back to my tribe.”
In 2015, Carpenter directed McCauley in one of her last stage performances, back at Washington Stage Guild, where she performed for years. He directed her in Frederick Lonsdale’s “On Approval.”
She played an aging, caustic society shrew. It was a role she relished, Carpenter said, in part because it didn’t resemble her personality. McCauley’s optimistic outlook won her hundreds of friends.
In her last public message on Facebook, she posted a watercolor painting of two people holding hands under a rainbow. Over the sky, it reads, “The world is pretty, and everyone should be quiet and enjoy it.”
Peter Marks contributed to this report.