Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 14, 1997

Theatre Hopkins
celebrates its
75th anniversary

Little Theater Of Big Ideas

Mike Field
Staff Writer

It's 9 at night on the Homewood campus, and inside the Merrick Barn theater Bob Walsh is explaining to neighbor M.L. Grout why he can't give her the key to the family bomb shelter.

"We've made some very tough decisions with that shelter!" Walsh protests as Grout does her seductive best to lure the key away. Standing ramrod straight at attention, his upper lip quivering in carnal desire, Walsh looks like the ruttish General Buck Turgidson in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. He tries valiantly to keep up his defenses.

"We've had to cut out the cousins! We've had to let my Aunt Ida stay outside and burn!" he cries, but all to no avail. Slowly, painfully, he removes the key hanging around his neck and drops it down Grout's blouse.

"All right!" he says at last, thinking of the Russian attack that may never come, "if we hit them before they hit us, you might never have to use this."

To readers of short fiction, the rationalizing away of uncomfortable reality by all-too-imperfect human beings is pure John Cheever.

To observers of the contemporary American drama, the crisp characterization and the bittersweet, often razor-sharp humor is pure A.R. Gurney.

And to fans of quality theater with a thoughtful perspective, served up in an intimate and engaging space, the moment itself is pure Theatre Hopkins.

"The plays that tend to draw our attention address the question, 'What are people like?'" says director Suzanne Pratt, who has led the company since 1984. "It's in the depth of psychology and the level of the language. There has to be a unique facility of language, noteworthy and interesting characters, and distinguished ideas. In that regard I would say Shaw is the rock star of Theatre Hopkins productions."

This season, messrs. Shaw, Shakespeare, Gurney and others have special cause to celebrate as Theatre Hopkins--the little theater of big ideas--celebrates its 75th anniversary.

A Cheever Evening, which includes the bomb shelter scenario and other events, is an episodic adventure through the stories of author John Cheever as put together by playwright A.R. Gurney. It opens Friday, April 18, and runs weekends through May 18. Walsh and Grout are joined by Michael O'Connell, Rosemary Polen, Jack Manion and Ruth Lawson Walsh in a threading story encompassing 60 individuals in a character-changing tour de force. It is a play that moves from laughter to poignancy and back again, often as quickly as the actors are able to switch costumes.

Originally founded in November of 1921 by a handful of graduate students and faculty members of the Department of English, Theatre Hopkins premiered in February of 1922 as the Homewood Playshop. At that time, the "little theater movement"-- which promoted an anti-commercial dramaturgy closely aligned with avant garde principles emanating from the European stage--was in full flower. The Homewood Playshop was strongly influenced by it.

Over the years, the philosophy of the theater has evolved, but not strayed. Its original aim was to supplement undergraduates' course work in drama and to present plays not likely to be seen on the professional stage. "I hope what we're doing is similar to the original intention," Pratt says. "We want to present quality pieces of literature, pieces that may find their way onto the syllabus, if they're not already there."

Each season Theatre Hopkins presents four plays, running successively in a season that lasts from October through June. This season, three of the four plays were each scheduled to run five weekends on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons, with one additional Sunday evening performance. All performances take place in the 106-seat Merrick Barn theater, which has been the group's permanent home since 1942.

The fourth production of the '96-97 season, Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, will play one weekend in Shriver Hall on campus and two successive weekends outdoors at the nearby Evergreen House, beginning June 13 with a special performance outdoors in front of Homewood House. Unlike many theaters, most of the performances in any season are at or near audience capacity. Pratt reports that Theatre Hopkins typically sells 90 percent of its house or better, an unheard-of number for most anything but a red-hot Broadway hit.

And at Theatre Hopkins, the seats not only sell full, they sell well, to an audience especially tuned to what the productions have to offer. "Our audience is incredibly well-prepared," reports box office manager Graham Yearley, who arrived with Pratt in 1984. Pratt and Yearley are the theater's only paid professional staff. They each hold part-time positions with Theatre Hopkins and pursue other livelihoods in their off hours. All others involved in the productions, such as the actors and technicians, volunteer their time.

"The bulk of our subscription base is older, and used to being brought up on the radio," Yearley says of the 850 to 900 individuals who subscribe each year. "For these people, listening is a major form of receiving information. They are very intent on listening, and many even read the plays before they come, so we get a very responsive audience."

Although the tone is often weighty, and the intent always serious, Theatre Hopkins productions are hardly stuffy. The theater itself--measuring just 29 and a half feet across and not a whole lot deeper--is too intimate to be remote, too immediate to be off-putting. Says Pratt: "We're doing substantial pieces of literature, but we're not always in ruffs and farthingales and togas."

"It's the quality of the play selection that makes Theatre Hopkins unique," agrees actress Ruth Lawson Walsh. She ought to know. Together with her husband Bob the couple has been acting in Theatre Hopkins productions--often in starring roles--since they arrived in Baltimore as young newlyweds in 1949. "I was not in the original Theatre Hopkins production, I'll have you know that," she says in mock seriousness. "But we have performed locally in TV and radio, we are members of AFTRA and SAG [the television and movie actors' unions]. We make money at this. But we continue to perform at Theatre Hopkins because of what it offers to both the actors and the audience."

"I know I sound like I'm just being nice, but the calibre of productions and the quality of the directors have been truly great over the years," says husband Bob. "There have always been people associated with the theater who care very deeply about what they're doing and it really shows."

A Cheever Evening runs April 18 to May 18 at the Merrick Barn theater on the Homewood campus. Tickets are $12 general admission, $9 senior citizen and $5 for full-time students. Call (410)516-7159.

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