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Learning curve

Atlanta theaters adapt to short and long term

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The local theater scene rewards the quick studies. Atlanta may not be a model of cultural health or stability, but the playhouses that swiftly adapt to the realities of economics and audience tastes are the ones that have come of age.

Small and mid-sized theaters in their early 20s dominate (at least in quantity) Atlanta theater. This year Theatre Gael marks its 20th season, while it's the 25th for the Center for Puppetry Arts and Neighborhood Playhouse (in January for the latter). Other twentysomethings are Theatre in the Square, founded in 1982, and 7 Stages, founded in 1979.

Long life doesn't guarantee continued health: Jomandi recently canceled its 25th season and its executive director/acting artistic director, Byron Saunders, stepped down Sept. 19. But as Lisa Adler prepares for Horizon's 20th season, and Susan V. Booth for her second as Alliance Theatre's artistic director, they each reflect some of the long-and short-term lessons for making theater in Atlanta.

While Horizon has always specialized in smart contemporary plays, Adler says that in early days they never did many musicals or African-American scripts, which the company now embraces. Next summer's Two Queens, One Castle represents both kinds of show, as it's a musical developed by Tom Jones, formerly of Jomandi. It will be staged during the National Black Arts Festival in anticipation of an off-Broadway run.

For its new year, Horizon carefully matches new plays to its favorite players. Mary Lynn Owen plays the title role of their season-opener, Charles Busch's Manhattan comedy The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, beginning Oct. 17. And Chris Kayser stars in Michael Healey's poignant culture-clash dramedy The Drawer Boy in the spring. In February, Horizon presents Time Flies, the company's third evening of short comedies by David Ives, which features actress Lala Cochran, who starred in the previous two.

The theater also recognizes the need to scale back ambitions when necessary. While Horizon hoped to secure funding for its New South Play Festival, it's been subsidizing the festival with the proceeds from musicals like I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. For next year's New South Play Festival, instead of having two full productions, they will present only one full staging, of Margaret Baldwin's Her Little House, and an off-night production of literary manager Addae Moon's Notes for the Bottle Tree.

The Alliance has also scaled back for its 37th season, putting five shows on the main stage instead of the usual six, and adding a show to the smaller Hertz Stage to cut costs. Consequently, the season opener, King Hedley II, is the company's first August Wilson show not produced in the big house.

The Alliance's production of My Fair Lady, opening in January, saves money on two ends. Booth will direct a "reduced" version of the lavish musical that features only 10 actors and two pianos, cultivating a more intimate atmosphere. Lady also represents a collaboration with St. Louis's Repertory Theater and the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, where it opened to good notices last month.

Booth says that her first year taught her that there are no safe predictions. "Crimes of the Heart, a play I love but one we thought was a safe choice for Atlanta, was out-sold by St. Ruby's Eyes, a play about civil rights, women's rights and abortion," she says.

None of the upcoming shows are as predictably Southern as Heart, but neither are they as politically charged as Eyes. The world premieres of Sandra Deer's The Subject Tonight Is Love and the company-created Leap address Alzheimer's and religious faith, respectively. Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, playing on the main stage in March, remains a dark vision of domestic life, but after 40 years, isn't as edgy as it used to be.

Booth's selections are more likely to intrigue than provoke, but the Alliance audience, like Horizon's, won't turn in their report cards until next year.

Extra credit: This is August Wilson week, as the Alliance Hertz Stage presents the regional premiere of King Hedley II, directed by Kent Gash, opening Oct. 1. That same night True Colors Theatre Company stages its inaugural production, Wilson's early play (and first Pulitzer-winner) Fences, helmed by Artistic Director Kenny Leon. Wilson's plays comprise a cycle-in-progress about 20th-century African-American life, with each one set in a different decade. We're waiting for Wilson to finish the decalogue with his 1990s shows. But until then, can you match the title with the play's corresponding decade?

1. Jitney a. 1960s
2. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom b. 1900s
3. Fences c. 1940s
4. Joe Turner's Come and Gone d. 1930s
5. The Piano Lesson e. 1910s
6. Two Trains Running f. 1970s
7. Seven Guitars g. 1950s
8. King Hedley II h. 1980s
9. Gem of the Ocean i. 1920s

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Off-Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

Answers: 1., f.; 2., i.; 3., g.; 4., e; 5., d; 6., a; 7., c.; 8., h.; 9., b.

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