Valerie Westgate as Dawn and Jeff Church as Jeff in “Lobby Hero” by Kenneth Lonergan, running DownStage at 2nd Story Theatre through October 6.
If you’re a patron of 2nd Story—and many of you reading this are—you’ve seen the sea change that has occurred there over the years. Actual theater seats have replaced the canvas backed director’s chairs, there is a working elevator and air-conditioning and the in-the-round seating plan has become a traditional proscenium theater housing the elaborate and aesthetically pleasing sets of resident designer Trevor Elliot.
But this season marks a quantum leap forward for 2nd story. Construction has recently been completed on a second performing space at 2nd Story, which means that the Theater can now boast an 170-seat upstairs, a 76-seat downstairs performance space, and an 11-play season. This was achieved by reconstructing the old, unused kitchen and basement area into 800 square foot mini-amphitheater with an 18-foot ceiling. During a span of time when other local theaters have closed or scaled back productions, 2nd Story has not only thrived but has become a bright point on the local cultural landscape. According to Artistic Director Ed Shea, “2nd Story has evolved organically. And I’ve always felt as if I was one step back from where it was steamrolling to, as if the place had a mind of its own.”
That upstairs space theater patrons are now so accustomed to “had been fallow for 40 years,” he continues, “and is now a comfortable hub of social, spiritual and theatrical activity.” Much credit, he adds, goes to “those early audience who were like pioneers” striving forth into theatrical terra incognito.
He raises a valid point. We Rhode Islanders are famous for not wanting to venture too far within the confines of our tiny state, but creating a cultural institution in one’s backyard does not necessarily guarantee that: “if you build it, they will come.” But East Bay audiences have, and in droves. From the beginning it has been local audience support, as well as the chance to see wonderful and acclaimed productions, that has allowed 2nd Story not merely to survive, but to thrive.
A large component of this level of brand loyalty that 2nd Story has created in the East Bay is Mr. Shea’s populist and inclusive aesthetic. “We’re also folksy and irreverent here”, Shea says, “from the popcorn we serve in concessions to our ‘tell four friends’ slogan. And you’ll never sit in this audience and feel stupid or not able to understand what’s going on.” The atmosphere of theatrical egalitarianism Shea has maintained at 2nd story over the years extends to keeping ticket prices low. Indeed, for such an ambitious and varied season it is the cheapest subscription series around. “I want to keep it affordable because a big part of our audience wouldn’t go to the theatre otherwise,” he explains. “Also, if you raise ticket prices there is a point of diminishing returns; a sense of elitism creeps in. And here in Warren you can park safely and for free.”
It is important for him, Shea explains, to maintain his populist approach of a theatre for his audience because “I’m one of them and we’re all in this together.” This strategy of accessibility seems to be working.
The Downstage season starts with “Lobby Hero” by Kenneth Lonergan and, says Shea, “In many ways it’s the quintessential play for our new venue which was built for people who really love theatre and is a perfect match because it’s funny, exciting, hip and smart. It has a small cast of four and has one simple location-the lobby of an apartment building. It’s about a security guard who is trying to get his act together and who is surrounded by those whom you might think have achieved their life goals but haven’t necessarily. The ethical dilemma that “Lobby Hero” engages in makes this an existential play. It explores the idea that to fix something in your life means to move into the realm of uncertainty and a security guard comes to realize that the only real security lies in the certainty that there is none.”
The second play Downstage is “Sons of the Prophet” by Steve Karam, which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. “It’s a health-care crisis comedy,” says Shea, “and it’s not realistic in design the way ‘Lobby Hero’ is. I wanted to do realism first in this smaller space then move towards the suggestive.” The new Downstage space, he adds, “is for plays that would be swallowed up in the upstairs space and are better served by a more intimate and focused setting.” The new venue allows audiences “to breathe the same air as the actors” and the deep black box design allows for more experimentation in staging as well as chance to recreate some of that old 2nd Story in-the round minimalist magic.
Upstage begins with the grand and glorious with Brian Freil’s highly acclaimed “Dancing at Lughnasa.” This Tony winner “bridges the gap with last year’s season of all Tony Winning plays and is vas and magical in ideas of and feeling”. Brian Friel’s masterwork explores, among many other things, cultural and spiritual identity and familial ties in the rural Ireland of 1936 and is simply haunting and brilliant.
The Upstage season continues with George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.” Ed Shea was, of course, a stalwart member of Trinity Repertory Company back in the day and with that venerable institution celebrating it’s 50th birthday “I wanted to do a play with a nod to that traditional Trinity style, as I remember it.
The one-woman play “Golda’s Balcony” by William Gibson will also be performed a t the historic Bristol courthouse. Presented to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in this play we watch as Golda Meir helps to create the modern state of Israel. Specifically her ‘balcony’ was her perch in the control booth as she oversaw the creation of that nation’s nuclear weapons program. “While she is not on trial in this courthouse setting”, explains Shea, “her legacy is, she judges herself and invites us to observe her in this spiritual place of judgment that is the historic Bristol Statehouse.”
This first half of the 2nd Story season is rather emblematic of the legacy that this theatre has created in its first 13 years in Warren. All of these are terrific plays, and all are quite different, a mixture of the classic and the modern with the two Downstage plays receiving their Rhode Island premieres. See listings for details or contact 2nd story Theatre at 401/247-4200 or www.2ndstorytheatre.com.