Volume XI, Issue 8 ~ February 20-26, 2003

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Bay Theatre Company co-founders Janet Luby and Lucinda Merry-Browne.
Bay Theatre Company
The New Kid on the Block’s Got Guts

by April Falcon Doss

Bay Theatre Company founders Janet Luby and Lucinda ‘Cindy’ Merry-Browne share a level of gutsy nerve — or verve — that’s one part prudence, one part daring, one part passion and one part blind faith.

You can see all four parts at work in the birth of their brainchild, which was conceived from a group joining together to read plays aloud. The cadre so enjoyed their reading of Christoper Durang’s Beyond Therapy that Luby said, “Let’s produce this!”

They had no rehearsal space and no performance space.

“It’ll come,” Luby declared, professing her faith that “if we follow the art, the other” — meaning the logistics — “will follow.”

And it did.

Through a series of coincidences, they were offered rehearsal space at Acousticopia, a downtown Annapolis specialty music store. Next, Mike Myron of the Annapolis City Development Office found them their first performance space, an indoor volleyball court.

The pieces fell together for a show whose three-week run became so popular that the crowds of 100 were standing-room-only by the final weekend — and this during December, when the calendar is already crowded with holiday productions, parties and events.

Act I
We’re into the process of creating a work of art.

Neither Luby nor Merry-Browne comes innocent to the pursuit of their shared hope, establishing a professional theater company in Annapolis. Both have worked professionally in New York and Washington, D.C. Luby holds a master’s degree from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. Merry-Browne founded her own theater company in Washington, D.C., in 1978 and kept it running until the mid-1980s, producing a spectrum of work from improvisational theater to performances casting the elderly and the blind.

Creating a professional theater company — one that pays its actors and aspires to produce the kind of work seen in D.C.’s Arena Stage, Baltimore’s Everyman Theater or Montgomery County’s Olney Theatre Company — is an idea that, says Merry-Browne, “has been in my head for 10 years.” On moving to Annapolis 12 years ago, she was, she says, “amazed at how good some of the community theater around here is.” Still, even while raising her children and running the commercial roofing business she and her husband have operated for 23 years, she longed to see something more.

Luby arrived in Annapolis just a few years ago, after leaving a New York acting career and taking on marriage and a sales job. With the birth of her now three-year-old son, she left that job — to find her love for acting return full force.

“You can take the actress off the stage, but …” laughs Luby as she describes her trajectory from New York actress to Annapolis mother to assistant artistic director and co-founder of Bay Theatre Company. “It’s my true love. It’s my passion. It’s Cindy’s passion.”

Proving her partner’s point, Merry-Browne indeed waxes passionate. “What we’re going to create is theater that challenges and inspires and creates a benchmark, a standard,” she says. “We want to be challenged and inspired ourselves, as well as excite and inspire audiences. We want to make it the best and most challenging artistic endeavor around. We do not necessarily want to entertain for entertainment’s sake. We’re into the process of creating a work of art.

“I’m really into …” Merry-Browne continues, only to pause as if searching for the right word. Luby jumps in to finish her sentence: “Perfection!” Both women smile, nod and laugh.

Act II
Tackling Oleanna reveals our nerve and dedication to rich and rewarding scripts.

To their shared passion, each brings distinctive tastes as well as experiences and talents. Luby is partial to classical playwrights like Chekhov, while Merry-Browne is inclined toward modern works.

In three plays in the past three months, Merry-Browne’s modern tastes have dominated. In December, when the other theater companies of Chesapeake Country were producing feel-good holiday favorites, Bay Theatre Company opened with Beyond Therapy, which tracks the trials and tribulations of affluent urban professionals — most of which revolve around sexual identity.

Then, for First Night’s family-style New Year’s Eve, the company switched to Luby’s classical preference for four performances of The Devil and Daniel Webster, a play based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1937 story about how the smooth-talking American orator saved a New England farmer’s soul.

Now playing is David Mamet’s Oleanna, described by Merry-Browne in its program notes as evidence of the new theater company’s ambition and reach: “Tackling Oleanna as the second offering of the BTC reveals our nerve and dedication to rich and rewarding scripts,” she writes. It’s a talky play about sexual ambiguity and power.

Mamet, of course, is the contemporary playwright and movie maker who’s become famous for such dramas of people breaking out of custom — and into trouble — as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. As Bay Theatre Company aspires to do, he both works with an ensemble and routinely steps over the edge.

Like Beyond Therapy, Oleanna followed will to a way. Luby and Merry-Browne held auditions before firming up performance dates and finding a stage. The dates — two weekends in February and one in March — were later scheduled around availability at Loews Annapolis Hotel, which donated space.

The Powerhouse building at the Loews may be called a conference center, but for this production of Oleanna it’s been transformed into a surprisingly effective and intimate space for live theater. The play lends itself well to the space. With all the action set inside a professor’s office at the college, the Powerhouse’s exposed brick walls make a lovely backdrop for the desk and chairs that round out the minimalist college faculty decor. The rich drapes add to the Northeast-liberal-arts ambiance, and the stage is set up on risers that offer a perfectly adequate view to the entire audience of this general-seating venue. The only real giveaway of the space’s conference center identity are the chairs: comfortable but with a gold-toned rim that would be at home in a hotel anywhere.

The small size of the Powerhouse space (adequate to seat about 75 people) enhanced the audience’s engagement with the actors — and with other members of the audience once the play ended and discussion began. As one theater-goer put it, “the play is so good and the setting is so small that I almost feel like I’m watching an elite, private show.”

We welcome you to The Bay Theatre Company, where you will find very live theatre.

Thus is faith backed up by hard work paying off. As well as three plays to its credit and a developing relationship with city administrators, Bay Theatre Company has a full stage it can truck in to transform any likely building into a live theatre until something more permanent comes along.

Vision has not blinded the partners to the business side of their endeavor. Their web site is up and running at www.baytheatre.org. The nonprofit company’s 501(c)(3) status has been secured. Bankrolled by a gala spring fundraiser — at a date to be announced — they plan a four-play season next fall, with expansion to five or six plays in future seasons.

Their ambition is to form a company of local actors and directors. All that ambition demands that they have a plan to pay for rehearsal space and performance space; costumes, lighting and sound equipment; and stipends for actors and directors. Supplementing events and grants will be classes. Envisioned is a two-track series of summer acting classes for children and adults, with one track offered to anyone interested and the second level open to aspiring professional actors by audition only.

Of their broader audience, Merry-Browne says, “Theater training can help anyone — with confidence, with public speaking, with all kinds of skills useful to professional life.”

Their early reception has convinced Luby that Annapolis is ready to welcome more — and more professional — theatre.

“Right now people aren’t really coming to Annapolis for theater,” says Merry-Browne. “They come here for shopping and restaurants and boating, but not for theater. And we want to be that kind of draw.”

Actress Lauren Kirby, who stars in Oleanna, agrees. “It’s nice to have a theater company that’s putting on shows that are challenging for actors,” says Kirby, who works days in marketing and development for Annapolis Symphony Orchestra. “Some of the others have kind of dabbled in it, but at a time when most are looking just to do what they think people will want to see, this is really nice.”

Merry-Browne believes that live theater should excite and inspire, challenge and engage. Thus she seems utterly unsurprised when, following the opening-night performance of Oleanna, no one wanted to go home. The crowd lingered, talking about the play and its ideas. “You ought to provide coffee and have a discussion group afterward,” one play-goer suggested.

“Isn’t that how live theater is supposed to be?” Merry-Browne asked. “Very lively.”

The Play’s the Thing
Oleanna Reviewed
by April Falcon Doss

“Theater should inspire and excite, challenge and engage. It’s supposed to leave people talking afterward,” says Bay Theatre Company co-founder Lucinda Merry-Browne.

That’s exactly what happened at Friday’s opening-night performance of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Staged in a boardroom space called the Powerhouse Building at Loews Annapolis Hotel, the two-actor drama marked the second production by fledgling Bay Theatre Company.

Oleanna is a taut drama about power, about miscommunication and misperception and about differing perspectives and the damage that is done when two people fail to hear each other or to look with glaring honesty at their own actions and intent. The conflict pits two characters, Carol (Lauren M. Kirby), a student at a Northeastern liberal arts college, against her professor, John (James Gallagher).

Lauren M. Kirby plays the student Carol, and James Gallagher plays her professor in Bay Theatre Company’s performance of Oleanna.

John has just passed the tenure committee’s review, which has voted in his favor, though that tenure has not yet been conferred. Flush with the self-importance that comes with tenure, he is preoccupied with his plans to buy a new house and enroll his son in private school. Carol is struggling: struggling to raise a failing grade in John’s education class, struggling to overcome the barriers that threatened to keep her out of this prestigious school, struggling against her own fear that she is too “stupid” to belong there or succeed in her educational dreams.

Carol’s visit to John’s office to discuss her grade and his class leads to a spiraling series of circumstances that will transform them both. He believes he has attempted to help her. She finds him sexist, elitist and insistent upon wasting time. She charges him with “sexual exploitativeness,” and that charge wends its way first through the tenure committee and then the courts.

This is no politically correct — or incorrect — diatribe on sexual harassment, however. As director Merry-Browne notes, “there are all these levels to the play: there’s the style, the subject, the subtext.” The play is too rich to provide easy answers or to take easy sides. Instead, it shows us two people who never manage to grasp the other’s perspective. And it challenges the audience to understand both.

This is a script that Time magazine rated as one of the best plays of 1992 and counted as among the best works by David Mamet, who has been called one of the most important American playwrights of modern times. Mamet has written over 20 plays, including Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Glengarry Glen Ross (for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984). He’s also become a leading figure in American cinema, as the screenwriter for such movies as Hannibal (2001), Wag the Dog (1997) and The Verdict (1982).

Oleanna is an acting challenge requiring both cast members to be on stage through the entire piece, which concludes in a breathless-but-unhurried hour and 40 minutes. More than their constant presence on stage, however, the play demands the actors move through an enormous emotional range: anger, despair, triumph, self-importance, deaf self-absorption and anguished self-doubt. Often these emotional changes take place within the space of minutes — and always within the context of the other character’s transformation as well. As actress Kirby said after the show: “It would be very easy to do this play badly.”

Instead, what Kirby and Gallagher accomplish is breathtaking. Both deliver nuanced portrayals that are devastating in their emotional authenticity, by turns restrained, bombastic and austere, all in appropriate measure to their characters’ transformations and the unfolding drama of the plot. The polish in this performance offers high tribute to the insight, labor and talent of Kirby, Gallagher and director Merry-Browne. Together, they live up to founder Merry-Browne and Janet Luby’s ideals, delivering a performance worthy of any of the regional theater companies in the Baltimore-Washington area.

No wonder, then, that the audience hated to leave opening night. At the play’s end, perfect strangers leaned across rows of chairs to discuss the play’s conflict and resolution, to attack or defend the characters’ position, but mostly to try to find that place of truth in the middle that seemed to elude both Carol and John.

Playing February 21, 22, 23 and 28; March 1 and 2; F,Sa at 8pm, Su at 7:30pm at the Powerhouse Building at Loews Hotel, 126 West Street, Annapolis. $15 w/free parking for theater-goers: 410/263-6671 • [email protected].



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Last updated February 20, 2003 @ 2:13am