She was known as “Miss Lillian.”
And the southern belle who later became a peanut farmer, fisherman, nurse, humanitarian and Peace Corps volunteer — not to mention a mother of four, one of whom would go on to become the president of the United States — is portrayed in an award-winning play, which makes its Canadian debut in Coquitlam next week.
Washington State actor Carol Swarbrick, who penned the show with her husband Jim Dries, takes on the role of the late Lillian Carter, a person Swarbrick describes as “wonderful but flawed.”
“I don’t want to perceive her as a saint but she was a remarkable woman,” Swarbrick told The Tri-City News last week following a performance of More Than A President’s Mother: The Lillian Carter Story, in Indianopolis.
It was her sense of humour and down-to-earth approach that won Carter so many fans, Swarbrick believes.
The staunch Democrat was loved by Americans of all political stripes, the press and even celebrity movers-and-shakers such as Johnny Carson, who asked her to appear on his late-night show as a guest several times. “She gave it right back at him,” Swarbrick said. “She was a real character.”
Born in Georgia in 1898, Carter did not discriminate between people: She championed equal rights and, despite the civil rights movement, she accepted African-Americans in her home despite her husband’s silent protest, Swarbrick said.
Her strong social activism was a value she passed down to her four children, of which only Jimmy survives today.
“She had compassion for people of all socio-economic levels and religions. She lived a life of service and I don’t see that being prevalent in a lot of our big cities today,” Swarbrick said. “It’s more the exception than the rule.”
Swarbrick has performed the 75-minute play around America more than 15 times including at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum and off-Broadway in New York City.
Jimmy Carter has seen a video of an earlier version, too.
In fact, he enjoyed her portrayal so much he invited Swarbrick and Dries to meet their family in Plains, Ga., where the former president preached at a Sunday church session for adults.
“This man is absolutely astonishing. He’s 94 and yet he barely needs the notes for his class,” Swarbrick said. “He knows the material and has such a passion for it without being exclusionary.”
Since their first meeting, Swarbrick and Dries have spent time with Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, about half a dozen times; they have helped with shaping their play, and have given Swarbrick and Dries permission to use any passages from Carter’s books (in exchange, the Carters have asked a percentage of the profits be donated to the Town of Plains Better Hometown Committee, in Lillian Carter’s memory).
Added Swarbrick: “I feel like playing Lillian Carter makes me a better person because, on stage and rehearsing the lines, I can feel what a strong woman she was. It’s very empowering.”
• More than a President’s Mother: The Lillian Carter Story runs from Sept. 18 to 22 at the Evergreen Cultural Centre (1205 Pinetree Way) and opens the season for the Coquitlam arts venue. For tickets, call the box office at 604-927-6555 or visit evergreenculturalcentre.ca.