The Interview: Actress Carey Van Driest on Ira Fuchs’ Period Drama, Vilna
By Michael Raver
Inspired by a news report of the discovery of the escape tunnel at the site of the Vilna ghetto, Ira Fuchs’ new play, Vilna, chronicles the coming of age of both Motke Zeidel and Yudi Farber in Vilna during its degradation on the cusp of World War II.
Featuring Tony nominee Mark Jacoby (Showboat, Ragtime), as well as accomplished actress, Carey Van Driest, Vilna boldly addresses antisemitism and historical revisionism head-on. Van Driest, who has spent the last few years with a strong focus on television and film, marks a return to theater and a continuation on her work with director, Joe Discher.
Currently in previews, Vilna opens Off-Broadway on March 20th at Theatre At St. Clements. Performances run through April 14.
How did this role come to you?
Joe Discher contacted me about auditioning. I’ve known Joe for years and love working with him, so when he offered me the role, I said yes.
You’ve been spending a lot of time pursuing work in film and television lately. What drew you back to theater?
Acting on camera is such a distinct form of storytelling and I have really loved moving into film and TV. But, one thing I’d missed was living with a character for weeks before performing in front of an audience. Getting to do both theatre and on-camera work is a gift because, as an actor, they challenge me in different ways.
Was there something about the role that scared you? How did you deal with that fear?
Naiomi Zeidel was a real person, but Ira Fuchs expanded what he was able to discover about her history to dramatize the role. I have had the honor of playing one other character based on a real person in The International, which dealt with the Bosnian/Serbian conflict at Szrebenica. Both of these women struggled with experiences I am almost certainly never going to have. There is a fine line to walk between wanting to honor the horror of their extraordinary stories and creating a person who lived in the present, unaware of what was coming.
Has the script evolved during rehearsal?
I haven’t been involved in the script development since the beginning, but even during our short rehearsal process, Ira has made changes. For new works, getting a play up on its feet brings all kinds of new challenges. Joe is navigating those elegantly, and Ira has been incredibly collaborative.
How has your relationship with your work changed since you finished drama school?
The last time I was in any sort of drama program was as an undergraduate at Texas Christian University. I didn’t attend graduate school. I moved straight to New York City. Most of my acting choices today have very little connection to who I was when I moved here. Life informs so much of what we do, and thankfully, we have the opportunity to use our experiences in our work.
If you could, what would you tell your 20-year-old self?
Trust yourself. Your instincts are good.
What do you want the audience to take from the show?
No one has done a play, or any dramatic work as far as we can tell, about Vilna or the recent discovery of the tunnel, secretly dug out of a large pit holding hundreds of Jews captive in the forests of Ponar. That several people escaped through that tunnel, only to have no one believe their story for decades, is tragic. We have generations who hold history in their minds and hearts. Too often we either don’t ask or don’t believe them when they share that history. We’re losing these precious reminders of what has come before and what we could avoid if only we took a moment to learn from them.
March 12 to April 14 at The Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St.
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Michael Raver’s adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray was produced by Sonnet Repertory Theatre at the Signature Theatre Center in 2012, and a reading of his pre-WWII adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, featuring Judy Kaye, was presented by the Pearl Theatre Company. His play, Fire on Babylon, was nominated for The Robert Chesley/Victor Bumbalo Foundation Award for Playwriting, as well as being named a semifinalist for The O’Neill Conference in 2015. Babylon received two workshops in 2016, first at Great River Shakespeare Festival and then at The Fresh Fruit Festival in New York, where it won multiple awards from All Out Arts. His play Evening, was a two-time finalist for Red Bull’s New Play Festival. His play Quiet Electricity was named a semifinalist at The O’Neill Conference in 2017 and was part of Emerging Artists Theatre’s New Work Series in 2018. His work has been presented by The Pearl Theatre Company, Sonnet Repertory Theater, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, The Martha Graham Company, Playhouse on Park and many others. He served as a judge for the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction for three years and regularly contributes cultural arts journalism for Classical TV, NYC Monthly, Hamptons Monthly, Playbill, Dance Magazine, CoolHunting.com, The Huffington Post, Art 511 Magazine, Imagista and Nature’s Post.