Monday, October 24, 2011

Roanoke Theater: An Embarrassment of Riches

I eaves dropped on a conversation at a restaurant the other night, wherein a woman pronounced that she couldn't wait for Mill Mountain Theatre to re-open in downtown Roanoke "so we can go to live theater again. I just really miss the opportunity to see people on stage in good plays."

This, obviously, was not a knowledgeable Roanoke theater supporter because she has more theater than she can attend if she'll look around and generally the theater here is affordable, competent, thoughtful, sometimes edgy and always creative. MMT will--actually, may--be back with productions in a few months. It closed down about a year ago and theater people have had to fill the gap since. They have done it in spectacular fashion and I hope it all remains in place if/when MMT does re-emerge.

A marvelous example was yesterday's performance of the Chad Henry adaptation of Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's story "Goodnight Moon" at Hollins University. Margaret Brown graduated from Hollins in 1932 and hers is the lead production in the legacy series featuring five Hollins Writers, "Five Stars and a Moon." The kickoff gave Ernie Zulia an opportunity again to show that he is a genius ... no less, no more.

Ernie could easily be working elsewhere, but he loves Hollins (obviously from his productions, if nothing else), his freedom to create and the kids he molds to levels of competence they could only imagine. "Goodnight Moon" is a lovely story of a little rabbit girl at bedtime and is peopled with nursery rhyme characters and, in this production, a talking set that is simply astonishing. This is a freakin' college production and it's as good as anything you'll see anywhere--as is everything Ernie touches.

"Goodnight Moon" will be followed in the coming months by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey's (class of 1960) "A Woman of Independent Means" (Nov. 15-18); Natasha Thetheway's (1991) Pulitzer-winning "Bellocq's Ophelia" (Feb. 15, 16 and 19); Lee Smith's (1967) and Jill McCorkle's (1981) "Good Ol' Girls" (April 13-15) and Annie Dillard's (1967) "The Annie Dillard Project" (October 2012).

Let me strongly suggest that you see "Good Ol' Girls." This one came through with its travelling troupe a few years ago and it was as good as anything I've ever seen on stage. A real howl with great music and Lee Smith's marvelous mountain voice.

But back to the point: we live in a city with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to theater. Studio Roanoke's productions--which don't always resonate with wide audiences--are what theater is all about: experimentation, thoughtful production, taking chances, giving opportunities.

The Gamut, which has a new home at Community High School, performs some of the most thought-provoking of Broadway's plays; Showtimers is true community theater; Roanoke Children's Theatre does that genre about as well as is possible; and Star City Playhouse, when it's up and running, is always thoughtful and worth seeing. Throw in Ferrum's Blue Ridge Dinner Theatre and occasional productions at Radford University (especially) and Virginia Tech (recently) and what else do you need?

When MMT returns, it will be welcome, but it will be far behind these other theaters in creating a theatrical atmosphere that covers a wide range of people who enjoy theater. MMT has traditionally appealed to wealthy older people--those who give it a lot of money--and I hope that will change with the new emphasis. We'll have to see. If it doesn't, we haven't lost anything.

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