On the Boards in the Burbs: Challenging Works

By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 10, 2008

If you're a serious theatergoer, the kind who wants to catch the latest wave of topical dramas and Pulitzer Prize winners, then know this:

Better get yourself to the suburbs.

Fifteen miles north of the Beltway, Olney Theatre Center is displaying a knack for picking up prestigious plays that major downtown theaters don't always seem willing to produce. The most conspicuous example is the area's just-closed professional premiere of "Stuff Happens," David Hare's hot-button examination of the walk-up to war in Iraq.

Now playing: the area premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire's "Rabbit Hole," a drama of grief by the author of "Fuddy Meers" and "Kimberly Akimbo" that was blessed a rave from the New York Times and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

This sturdy and sometimes aggressive programming might be a bit of a well-kept secret, even though Olney's affinity for challenge extended to hosting the politically driven Potomac Theatre Project for 10 years, through 2006. The reasons for this lack of attention? History and geography.

Even if you are a serious theatergoer, this handsome campus where upper-middle-class enclaves edge up against farm country might be just too darn far away. Four-fifths of the Olney audience is drawn from the immediate surroundings of Montgomery County, and managing director Amy Marshall says it's not uncommon for people to declare, "I'm not driving out there."

Artistic Director Jim Petosa has coped with this since taking the job in 1994, as the theater was still making the transformation to year-round operations.

"There are still people who think Olney is a community theater . . . ," Petosa says over a lunch alfresco across the street from Olney's bucolic complex. "How can a professional theater be plunked down in the middle of this place? It doesn't make any sense."

He laughs: "And I guess it really doesn't. It makes no sense whatsoever."

More in line with expectations are the bygone days of the summertime straw-hat circuit. For the first 50 of its 70 years, Olney was a summer stock theater, playing host to such touring stars as Tallulah Bankhead and Helen Hayes. Spring was the time that staff chased snakes out of the building to get ready for the short season; peach baskets still serve as lampshades over the audience in the historic Mainstage.

But that quaint structure is now but one of four venues at Olney Theatre Center, where a decade's worth of improvements and expansion were capped three years ago with the opening of a new 429-seat theater. That comfortable modern venue and the smaller Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab have been the best bets for local theatergoers to catch such acclaimed and demanding plays as "Omnium Gatherum" (the post-9/11 dinner party fantasia that was a 2003 Pulitzer finalist) and "Democracy," Michael Frayn's taut study of former West German chancellor Willy Brandt and the communist spy who admired him.

Petosa says of his audience: "They like the complexity of psychological relationships writ inside epic world events; it's the moment when Bush looks into Putin's eyes and says he sees his soul. What is that? Is that hubris? Is that intuition? Whatever it is, it's very human; it's just a person doing something. And yet the planet is impacted by that simple human action. These plays all do that."

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