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A Keen Sense of Direction, Well Shared

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

"Any playwright knows that when you find a good director who really gets what you're trying to do, you hold on," says Caleen Sinnette Jennings. "We were just in sync," she says of Lisa Rose Middleton, who died Oct. 22 at 43 after a long battle with breast cancer.

Since the 1980s, Middleton had directed in small professional theaters here, mentored young African American theater artists, taught at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in Georgetown and was an adjunct professor and adviser for Georgetown University's Black Theatre Ensemble.

She also helped usher many of Jennings's new works onto the stage, including "Inns & Outs" at Source and "Playing Juliet/Casting Othello" at the Folger.

"She was always the second person who read my script. First was my husband, and the second was Lisa," Jennings says. "She was just really smart, and she was so low-key and laid back that sometimes people didn't catch on for a while," notes the playwright.

"I think all of us have been in denial," she says of Middleton's death. ". . . You always fool yourself into thinking there's time."

The Rev. Rachel Foley, who acted under the name Rachel Spaght, was Middleton's friend and colleague since 1988. "She gave me a shot" at the stage, Foley recalls. "I went on and became an actress . . . largely because of Lisa . . . because she saw my potential."

One of the young talents Middleton nurtured was David Lamont Wilson, who has performed at Woolly Mammoth, African Continuum Theatre Company and in Jennings's "Inns & Outs." Middleton first cast him in Judlyne Lilly's 1991 play "The Pearl" while he was still a college student.

"To this day, I don't even know why she cast me in that role because I thought it was so far above my capabilities, but she did," Wilson says. "For some reason, she just wanted to help me grow. . . . And we've been kind of linked from that point on."

As Middleton's illness progressed, Foley often drove her from her Woodbridge home to rehearsals. "She wanted to work, and theater was her whole life," Foley says. "What I knew for certain was that if people took that away from her, then she would die, surely. . . . I would drive her home and I would be praying and she would be screaming because she would be in so much pain."

But at rehearsals, "you wouldn't see the sign of weakness until everyone left," Foley says. It was indicative of Middleton's "strength of character and wanting people to be compelled to do their best."

Wilson recalls: "Lisa used to always tell me, 'David, you cannot walk onstage wearing a mask and expect to put on another mask.' . . . What she was saying to me was that you always have to be honest -- that you have to bring honesty to the stage.

"I kind of take that into everything that I do outside the theater. She used to say that to me all the time."

'An Exquisite Little Piece'

"I've done one-woman pieces before, but this makes 'Shirley Valentine' look like 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,' " Catherine Flye says of her new role as Nana, the aproned Everymother at the center of "For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again." French Canadian dramatist Michel Tremblay pays tribute to his own eccentric mum in the play, at MetroStage in Alexandria through Nov. 27. Though Bruce M. Holmes, as the Narrator, never leaves the stage, the play remains a chatty tour de force for Flye.

"It's a helluva lot of memorization," she says. "I never really stop for 90 minutes." Nana not only talks a blue streak, she also takes many, many detours.

"It's like having a hundred parentheses going on at the same time, and finally getting back to the main story. Shakespeare does that in his blank verse, but Shakespeare's simple to learn," Flye says without irony.

Professionally, she feels, "it's the most difficult thing I'll ever do in my life . . . but it is the most rewarding. It's an exquisite little piece."

'Hapgood'

Director Kathleen Akerley has a new perspective on the stage, and she's enjoying the view from the other side of the footlights. She takes the title role in Tom Stoppard's 1988 "Hapgood," melding Cold War espionage and quantum physics at Washington Shakespeare Company in Arlington through Dec. 4.

More active as a director specializing in the avant-garde (recently "shkspr prjct" at Catalyst, Stoppard's "The Real Inspector Hound" and Mac Wellman's "Energumen" for her own Longacre Lea troupe), Akerley was supposed to steer the "Hapgood" ship. Then Jennifer Deal, who was to play the title role, had a chance to tour Slovenia with Scena Theatre. Washington Shakespeare Artistic Director Christopher Henley nudged Akerley into playing Hapgood.

"I had such a spontaneous reaction to that. I felt lifted up by that idea," Akerley recalls. "I felt lighter. I thanked him, I hung up, and I thought, Oh, I have so many lines to learn -- in a very short time."

So Akerley moved onto the stage and Henley and Alexandra Hoge directed. Hapgood, a spy wrangler for the British government and an occasionally frazzled single parent, is the only female character in Stoppard's play.

The toughest thing, Akerley says, has been deciding how hard-edged or gentle to make her. "We talked about whether she has made herself masculine to fit in, or whether she's fit in by being the only woman in the room and playing on that."

But for Akerley "this daily examination" in rehearsals is nothing compared with directing. "I don't want to sound blase, but there's something serene about knowing where all the borders of your world are," she says.

"Getting to go onstage and play with people is so delightful."

Follow Spots

Open Circle Theatre will present "Low Level Panic" by British dramatist Clare McIntyre on Nov. 7-29 at 1409 Playbill Cafe. The play, for mature audiences, examines women's self-images in the face of a societal fascination with pornography. Call 240-683-0305 or e-mail director@opencircletheatre.org .

Studio Theatre will hold an open call for child actors Nov. 9 from 4 to 7 p.m. It needs four 11-to-13-year-old white girls for "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (first rehearsal Feb. 6) and two African American boys, ages 8 to 12, who sing well for "Caroline or Change" (first rehearsal April 17). Call Margo at 202-232-7267 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org and click on "opportunities" and "casting."

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