After a few years pursuing an acting career in New York, Beth Hylton settled in Washington with her husband about a decade ago and began scouting out career opportunities closer to home.
"I auditioned a lot and saw a lot of theater in the area," she says. "And the best, by far, I was seeing was at Everyman Theatre. It was truthful, the story-telling was clear, and there was a shared kind of history that showed in the casts."
Hylton is now part of that shared history. For the past three years, the affable, versatile, Danville, Va.-born actor has been a member of Everyman's resident company of professionals.
She'll be onstage this week performing a pivotal role in "Outside Mullingar," a play about love and regret in rural Ireland by John Patrick Shanley, author of "Doubt" and "Moonstruck." Come spring, Hylton will tackle one of the most famous and demanding roles in theater — the fragile, issue-filled Blanche who propels Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire."
"I consider her a pillar of the company," says Everyman artistic director Vincent Lancisi. "She's a real gift for us. Beth is a huge team player. Everybody wants to work with her — and I'm not making this up."
After a couple of auditions, Hylton got her first callback from the company in 2007 for a production of "And a Nightingale Sang," C.P. Taylor's drama set in World War II Britain.
"I cast her to play this homely woman with a limp, a woman who felt in danger of becoming an old maid," Lancisi says. "What struck me immediately was Beth's keen ability to access her emotions. And audiences immediately fell in love with her."
Hylton was re-hired for a couple more productions. In 2012, after her nuanced portrayal of a photographer wounded and toughened by the Iraq War in Donald Margulies' "Time Stands Still," Lancisi popped the question.
"I realized the scope of her talent and asked her to be a resident actor," he says. "It felt like such a natural fit."
The fit was mutual.
"When I was asked to join, I was over the moon," Hylton says. "I didn't in my wildest dreams think that I'd be a company member."
Although Everyman hires guest artists (two will be in "Outside Mullingar"), the impressive quality of the resident actors provides a consistency that has helped to define the company.
"Like all families, ours has its ups and downs," says fellow resident member Bruce Randolph Nelson. "Beth is one who keeps the bright side front and center."
Balancing Hylton's upbeat, no-attitude nature offstage is a remarkable expressive range on the boards.
Between January and December 2014, for example, Hylton was an endearing Lenny in Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart"; romped delectably as a fading film star in Lynn Nottage's "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark"; deftly conveyed a bruised character in Theresa Rebeck's "The Understudy"; and gave a vivid spin to the hapless wife in Ira Levin's thriller "Deathtrap."
"I perfected my scream in 'Deathtrap.' I was thinking: Get out of the way, horror film starlets, and let the old lady show how it's done," Hylton says with an infectious laugh, looking much younger than someone who admits to being "solidly in my 40s."
There might be some limitations to Hylton's versatility.
"She can't sing," Lancisi says. "She told me that at the beginning. And she's right. But she's a beautifully trained actor."
Hylton's path toward the stage started early.
"I always wanted to be an actor. Always," she says. "Strange, isn't it? I was like a dog with a bone. I wasn't going to let go."
There was, however, a brief flirtation with another type of performing career, back when she was growing up in Danville.
"At 3, I saw the Rockettes' Christmas Show on TV and decided I wanted to do that," Hylton says. "But I'm short and I can't dance, which got in the way of that dream. I still remember looking out the window when I 6 and saying: 'I must get out.' And then, at 11, writing in my 'Hello Kitty' diary: 'Growing complacent. Must not.'"
Hylton followed her own advice. She performed in plays in high school and, after college, headed to the actors' mecca, New York.
"I did all the support work actors do — waiting tables and bartending," she says. "I struggled through bad years, not just financially, but bad-actor years."
After a stint with a theater lab for experimental work in the 1990s, Hylton decided to go to graduate school and hone her skills. She subsequently met her husband, a scientist, and moved to Washington, where he works.
Hylton has kept a foot, and an agent, in New York through the years. She almost got a gig a gig as an understudy in "The 39 Steps," which might have led to a Broadway bow.
"I will get there someday," she says with a smile. "I'll be playing Maid No. 3, but I'll be on Broadway. And I can carry a tray — all that waiting tables will pay off."
In addition to stage work, Hylton has done television work, including an appearance on "House of Cards" and some soap operas.
"I had a recurring role as a nurse on 'One Life to Live,'" she says. "I was on so often they finally gave me a name: 'Beth.' They named a character after me."
But the theater has always been Hylton's primary focus. Locally, she has performed with Center Stage and such D.C. companies as Folger Theatre and Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Everyman is where she most often puts into practice her philosophy about acting.
"I get it — it's a job," she says, "but it feels like a true spiritual experience. And the less ego I have in the work, the better I will feel. If I can get rid of my ego, it's giving over the story to the audience."
Nelson saw Hylton do that when they starred as husband and back-from-the-dead wife in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" last season.
"She offered me some great advice about how to deal with backstage nerves, what to do with audience approval — how not to need it," Nelson says. "She knows how to get around those actor-ly anxieties."
These days, Hylton is pouring herself into the role of Rosemary in "Outside Mullingar." The character is a 40-something woman who wants to keep love from passing her by for good, and who sees a prospect in her neighbor.
"I love the script," Hylton says. "I think it's a beautiful, magical play. There's a magic in the language and the story-telling."
Hylton finds much to like in Rosemary.
"She's fierce and fiercely loyal," the actor says. "She has a great conviction in herself, a sense of truth that comes from within. And she's funny. I admire the Irish for their love of language and literature and their fierce pride. They also have great bread and cheese and butter. What's not to like? And the beer. I get to drink half a glass of Guinness in this show."
Even while getting deep into an Irish frame of mind, Hylton has kept one eye on "Streetcar." She recently spent about 10 days doing research in New Orleans, where the play takes place.
"I went specifically looking for Blanche's world," Hylton says.
The prospect of taking on a role so famously played by Vivien Leigh in the film version of "Streetcar" does not faze Hylton.
"I've played some other iconic roles," she says. "You just have to steer clear of what everyone else has done. Blanche is like a lady Hamlet. You have to go into the abyss and tumble into madness. It's terrifying, but you have to do it."
When not peering into abysses or thinking in an Irish accent, Hylton is apt to be reading plays and, she admits, sometimes indulging in "crap reality TV" at home, which she and her husband share with a cat and two Italian mastiffs.
Her second home at Everyman is never far from her mind.
"Being in a regional theater is the best life a theater actor can have," she says, adding with a laugh: "I'm in the one percent."
If you go
"Outside Mullingar," which preview performances Wednesday and Thursday, opens Friday and runs through Jan. 10 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $60. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.
Beth Hylton at a glance
Birthplace: Danville, Va.
Home: Washington D.C., with husband (a scientist), two dogs and a cat
Age: "Solidly in my 40s"
Education: B.F.A. in acting, Virginia Commonwealth University; M.F.A. in acting, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Everyman Theatre highlights: Gloria in "By the Way, Meet Vera Stark"; Lenny in "Crimes of the Heart"; Myra in "Deathtrap"; Elvira in "Blithe Spirit"