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A critic recalls the summer season that sparked his love for the stage
I love repertory theatre. I fantasize about a schedule that switches up a handful of diverse plays -- say Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire on Wednesday, Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind on Thursday, and Sarah Ruhl's In the Next Room (or the vibrator play) on Friday -- and then repeats. Imagining the same cast performing all three, with an actor taking a leading role one day, a character part the next? Now that's entertainment. I love the egalitarian sense that inspires, a sum-is-bigger-than-the parts effect, which is heightened when the plays are classics.
I come by this love honestly. All of my occasional theatre personae -- critic, reporter, actor, director, playwright, audience -- were begat by watching a summer repertory season at the University of South Carolina in 1980.
At the time I was a journalism major taking a beginning acting class in summer school, working on some William Inge one acts. Before that class I had seen maybe a couple of plays in my life. My teacher encouraged us, for extra credit, to volunteer as ushers for the summer rep shows at Longstreet Theatre, the 312-seat arena space where the season was held. The company, while not Equity, was paid, balancing professional actors with older, advanced students. So I showed up one night, tore a few tickets, and settled in to watch Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. I was 18.
If you were to find a single 18-year-old who could sit unmoved while watching Salesman, you'd depress me. It can't be possible. "I'm a dime a dozen, and so are you!" yells Biff to his father, Willy. That line was fire across my sky. Why did things go wrong for the Loman men? My teenage mind had to figure it out -- to discover what it meant to me.
My next show was George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, with Henry Higgins offering a reverberating counterpoint to Biff's point of view: "I have my own soul. My own spark of divine fire," he says. Eliza has such a soul, too. Did I have such a soul? Or was I a dime a dozen? My mind looked inward, with wonder, as I contemplated each. These surprising connections of dissimilar works are part of what makes repertory so fascinating.
But here's the part that was most thrilling to me: Actor Jeffrey West, the top-notch Henry Higgins, had also been Happy, Biff's brother, in Salesman. The amazing Christine Morris (Eliza) had been in Salesman, too, in the small role of the Woman. (She's the one without a name whom Biff catches in Willy's hotel room.) And the Salesman leads did support service in Pygmalion: Richard L. Jennings, so powerful as Biff, was now the rather lightweight Freddy Eynsford-Hill, with Charles Whetzel, a moving Willy, as the wily Alfred Doolittle, Eliza's father.
The plays had already engaged me, but this repertory casting was heroic, like seeing the Justice League in various intriguing team-ups. The program for that summer season had a chart with the superhero actors on the far left and the roles they played laid out horizontally across the centerfold. I studied that chart. I thought about the various combinations of actors playing scenes with one another across the plays. Most performers were in three shows; some were in four. (Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, a bittersweet Texas comedy by Preston Jones, and the children's show Dr. Vanilla and the Short Tall Tales rounded out the season.)
I would have collected trading cards of that company. The cards with leading performers would be especially coveted, naturally, but so would those of performers with parts in all four shows -- the worker bees of the season.
I attached myself to that summer rep as an unofficial assistant house manager, and while I took pride in being a professional (my own supporting role) and selling as many intermission lemonades as I could, every so often I would wander backstage near the vom entrances to watch Jennings lying on his back, concentrating before going onstage as Biff. I was just as focused post-show on the members of the set crew as they slid Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander's living room out of the way to clear the stage for a Covent Garden street scene. And I observed, from the fringe, the social life of the company, an interesting phenomenon itself.
An offhand moment at a post-matinee barbecue stands out as especially telling to me. West (the Henry and the Happy, as well as the Corky Oberlander of Lu Ann) had just left his carpool and, as he surveyed the backyard, he paused. "What day is this?" he asked. "What show did we do?" He laughed and shook his head to clear out any confusion. This little brain fade, I thought, was a proud occupational hazard of a rep schedule.
These memories came back to me last year when I reviewed the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival summer repertory season. Maria-Christina Oliveras took on a pair of male parts: the title role in Macbeth and the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It; Kurt Rhoads played the dukes of As You Like It as well as Pompey (in semi-drag) in Measure for Measure. Part of me was 18 again; I felt that urge to see those actors and their castmates on trading cards.
That's a secret of critics: our origins continue to influence us. So if repertory theatre gave birth to my theatrical identity, how has it shaped the adult I've become? I'm more likely than some to enjoy non-traditional casting, I suppose, as a rep plan might effect the pleasant surprise of an actor stretching for a role and finding something wholly unique. I yearn for larger-cast shows, with more parts to make impressions and serve the whole. But mostly, I like the sense of ensemble a rep plan requires, the journeyman service to theatre, whatever size the role.
My hope is that, one day, a probably unattainable vacation will take me to the Oregon, Williamstown, and Utah theatre festivals, as well as others willing to mix up, say, Clifford Odets' Waiting for Lefty, Tina Howe's The Art of Dining, and Lanford Wilson's Book of Days; or Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, Tony Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, and Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll. Try it -- make up your own fantasy season. It's fun! I hope all of our soon-to-start summer theatre festivals are listening and shaking up our options.
David DeWitt has written extensively about the arts for The New York Times and other publications.
Top image: Christine Morris as Eliza in 'Pygmalion' at the Longstreet Theatre. Both photos courtesy of the author.