Williford aims to triumph in `Love’

Talk to enough actors and you’ll begin to see a trend emerge.

Most of them had a transformative experience as children acting in one particular show. Any guesses?

If you said The Wizard of Oz, you get a gold star _ or maybe a yellow-brick star.

Jud Williford, one of the Bay Area’s best and brightest emerging stars, played the Tin Man in what he calls “the greatest production of `Oz’ ever.”

“My mom made my costume,” he adds.

Count yourself unlucky if you missed little Judson Van Williford in that eighth-grade production, but despair not.

Young Jud survived a childhood bouncing from Louisiana to Colorado to Texas to become an actor of tremendous range and appeal. He arrived in the Bay Area about six years ago after graduating with an acting degree from the University of Evansville in Illinois, and spent three years getting his master’s degree from San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

He has done standout work with California Shakespeare Theater in, among other shows, Nicholas Nickleby, with ACT in a number of productions, most recently “The Imaginary Invalid,” and with smaller groups like Encore Theatre and Z Plays’ American $uicide (pictured above, Williford is with Beth Wilmurt).

This weekend he opens in another California Shakes production, The Triumph of Love, a Marivaux romantic comedy in which he plays a prince falling deeply in love for the first time.

Earlier this year, ACT announced that Williford would be joining the core company for the new season, bringing him full circle — from student to professional on the same stage.

“It’s pretty neat to give back to a program that basically birthed you,” Williford says during a break in Triumph rehearsals.

In high school, Williford played basketball (his main position, he says, was “bench”) and a little football. But he made the choice to go for theater.

“We had this crazy head of the drama department, Mr. Larsen, and he loved theater. He yelled and threw stuff. It was great,” Williford recalls. “You’d be in two or three shows a year and spend seven weeks rehearsing and then perform for a weekend. He made us take it seriously — not just as a hobby or something to kill time, but something that was a viable option for existence. My GPA in high school was horrible. The only place I could focus was when I was being creative.”

Among his Bay Area acting highlights since his professional debut in ACT’s A Christmas Carol — which he will perform for a fifth time in December, but “that’s a whole other story,” he says — Williford cites the massive two-part Nickleby production at Cal Shakes two summers ago.

“To be a part of telling that story and to be part of something that was so truly an ensemble piece — it was a real pinnacle,” Williford says. “I’m doing Triumph of Love with people mostly from `Nickleby,’ and we spend most of our time talking about that.”

While working on a production of The Imaginary Invalid in Philadelphia (not to be confused with the more recent ACT “Invalid” in which he played the same role), Williford read The Triumph of Love for the first time, and his response to Price Aegis, the role he would be playing, was: “Oh my gosh, this is going to be a cakewalk.”

Then he got to the first read-through with director Lillian Groag, who has also newly adapted the Marivaux play. Williford’s perspective shifted.

“I realized the play was a whole lot deeper than it appears on the surface,” he says. “I thought: `This is the one — everyone will figure out I’m a fraud and demand their money back from previous productions.’ ”

Aegis is an isolated prince who has been told love is bad. He meets a young woman (pictured above, played by Stacy Ross, with Williford in the rear), who happens to be disguised as a boy, and Aegis, a true innocent, is thrilled to have found a best friend forever. Then he finds out she’s a woman and experiences something entirely different: true love.

“It’s all about experiencing love without knowing what love is,” he says. “As soon as love is turned on, so is all the bad s*** like jealousy and anger. You grow up real quick when you fall in love. Everything becomes extreme _ the highs are really high and the lows are really low. I love how hard this is.”

A co-production with San Jose Repertory Theatre, this Cal Shakes show heads to the South Bay in September. After Williford resumes Christmas Carol duties (he plays Bob Cratchit), his stint as an ACT company member kicks into high gear with roles in The Government Inspector, Curse of the Starving Class and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

Now that he’s a full-fledged, active member of the Bay Area acting community, Williford says he couldn’t be happier with the company he keeps.

“I have yet to do a show where I don’t know somebody involved,” he says. “It’s a tight-knit community, and I like that. I also like audiences that like their actors and have a history with them and an opinion about them. There are a lot of good actors here, more than other places. What am I basing that off of? It’s just what I think.”

The Triumph of Love continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit off Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel, Orinda. Tickets are $15 to $60. Call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

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