Russo's Return 

After a five-year break, the suddenly swamped actress will star at Swift Creek Mill.

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Of course there was also that full-time teaching job, the two small children at home and a husband (local theater mainstay David Bridgewater) who's one of the busiest actors in town. It all conspired to keep Russo offstage. Though she'd been a performer since she was a child — taking acting classes while growing up in Short Pump, appearing in nine productions at Godwin High School — that part of her life was over.

Until this summer, that is.

Suddenly Russo is one of the hottest actresses in town. Though she hasn't appeared in a professional production in nearly five years, she's recently landed central roles in two major shows: the just-closed Barksdale Theatre hit, "The Full Monty," and the soon-to-open "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" at Swift Creek Mill Theatre.

Russo says her husband inspired her re-emergence: "David has been saying for years, 'If you are going to continue to teach drama, you need to go back onstage.'" Russo, who teaches drama and math at Orchard House School, a private middle school for girls, agreed: "I had to go back to keep myself fresh."

But there is much more to her return than making herself a better teacher. "Adults can get to a place where they trap themselves into certain roles: 'I'm a mom' or 'I'm a teacher,'" Russo says. "I think it's important to have something that feeds the person you were before you were all the other things."

Her transition back into the limelight hasn't been without difficulties — even for a usually confident and vivacious performer. "The opening night of 'Full Monty,' I left my house crying. I had a meltdown," she says. "Part of it was because I was the first person onstage. I thought, 'Why do I have to open the show?'"

Russo played Georgie, the liberated wife of an out-of-work industrial worker, who starts the show by introducing a male stripper to a crowd of eager compatriots. It was a rousing opening to a finely crafted performance in which she played both spunky working woman and sensitive spouse with exceptional skill.

Now she's preparing for one of the biggest roles of her career. "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" is a comic musical revue that explores the complexities of relationships. Unlike the large cast of "Monty," this show has only four actors. "It's a huge leap for me," Russo says. "It's the most material I've done in a show since college."

In addition, she's directing the Summer Program for Luther Memorial School on Richmond's North Side, her warm-weather job for the past 11 years. Consequently, Russo is plenty busy. But she seems to prefer it that way: "I'm 37, so if I'm lucky, I've got 30 or 40 more years," she says. "I don't like to waste my time. I've got a lot I want to get done." S

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" begins previews Aug. 18 at Swift Creek Mill Theatre on Jefferson Davis Highway in Colonial Heights. Opening night is August 26. For more information, call 748-5203.

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