Born to play a dim bulb


Suli Holum is playing dumb. To be specific, she's portraying the quintessential dim bulb in Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday at Washington's Arena Stage.

At least that's how the character of Billie Dawn, the ex-chorus girl mistress of a racketeer, starts out. Then the racketeer hires a reporter to "smarten 'er up" so she won't embarrass him while he's trying to buy influence in Washington. After a little knowledge dawns on Billie, she outsmarts everyone.

When Holum's mother, Binnie Ritchie Holum (a Washington-based actress, playwright and choreographer) learned that her daughter would be playing Billie Dawn, she remembers thinking, "This part was written for Suli" - not because her daughter's a lowbrow, but because she's the opposite.

"In order to play dumb and then have an awakening, you have to be a bright person. To have that kind of growth experience during a show, a person has to know what that's all about to start with," her mother says. "I had no question that she could get that."

Suli's performing career began at the side of her mother, who has appeared on various smaller stages in Baltimore. During Suli's early childhood, the family lived in Philadelphia, where her father, Robert, a Lutheran minister, was pastor at a church, and her mother was earning a master's degree in dance education at Temple University. "She started back to school when I was 2, and I started dancing when I was a little teeny, tiny person," Suli says.

The family moved to Baltimore when Suli (short for Solveig, the name of her paternal grandmother) was 8. Her mother became head of the dance department at St. Timothy's School, and occasionally Suli was cast in plays there, although she attended Thomas Jefferson Elementary and West Baltimore Middle School.

She entered the acting program at the Baltimore School for the Arts planning to be writer. "I thought that studying theater would make me a better writer because I would be able to understand characters from the inside out," she says. But, she continues, "Once I started that conservatory training, that was it. There was no way I could do anything else but be an actor."

"Her range was amazing. ... She's a total chameleon," recalls Donald Hicken, head of the school's theater department. "Everybody who worked with her acknowledged that she was an extraordinary talent, in addition to being really bright."

After graduating in 1993, Holum enrolled at Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College. The summer after her sophomore year, she and some classmates founded the Pig Iron Theatre Company to "create original works of dance-clown theater." The company, which is still in existence, has also given Holum a chance to write. Gentlemen Volunteers, her play about World War I ambulance drivers, has toured internationally. (Another script, The Lollipop Project - a one-woman show about the over-medication of children - was written independently, in part during a fellowship in Singapore.)

One summer when Pig Iron was performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, Holum was handing out fliers when an actor named Trey Lyford handed her one for his show. They went to each other's productions, and in 2001 they were married at Washington's Luther Place Memorial Church, where her father has been pastor since 1998.

Four seasons ago, Holum and Lyford performed together in Othello at the Folger Theatre (she was Desdemona; he was Iago). It is her only previous Washington production.

With Born Yesterday, of course, she's in a play that happens to be set in Washington. "It's particularly rewarding to do theater that's directly related to the people you're performing it for, " she says.

"To me, the message of the play is that the definition of democracy is very simple - everyone takes part, and if you don't take part, it falls apart. It's very nonpartisan, I think - encouraging dialogue and action and involvement and citizenship. It seemed like a really good time to do that."

Born Yesterday continues through Nov. 6 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington. $46-$60. Call 202-488-3300.

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