When Christian Whittington appeared in the premiere production of "Semmelweiss" at Studio Arena in Buffalo last year, her salary was $25 a week.
During the past five weeks, she portrayed the same roles at the Kennedy Center. Her union-mandated salary here was $355 a week.
The Washington production not only offered Whittington her first fully professional role, but also a chance to appear on Broadway, since New York was next on this production's agenda. So even before finding temporary quarters in Washington, Whittington arranged for permanent quarters in the Big Apple in anticipation of her employment there.
Then, a week ago last Friday, co-producer Robert Whitehead gathered the "Semmelweiss" cast together backstage 20 minutes before the show was due to begin. He had an announcement to make: Because of the producers' artistic difference with director Ed Sherin and playwright Howard Sackler, "Semmelweiss" would close a week early in Washington and wouldn't go to New York.
Though most critics had liked the play, Whitehead said later, "the audience was missing point after point," and the director and writer would not make enough change to please the producers.
"My stomach sort of left me," said Whittington. "We had had no inkling he would say that." She had back the tears until she was onstage, where they could be "used." In her first scene she played a woman in labor who is afraid her doctors might kill her. It was an appropriate moment for tears, and Whittington let them flow.
After all that (and what Whitehead estimates is a financial loss somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000), the 32 players might have been forgiven for deep depression on Saturday, closing day. But, to paraphrase a line from the play, the dressing rooms were not draped in black. In fact, good news was spreading fast.
Director Sherin, so it was said, had found all-new financiers for a Broadway production of Sackler's stormy account of how a 19th-century doctor went mad fighting the Vienna medical establishment.
Even better, as far as these actors were concerned, the word was that rehearsals for the new production would begin immediately following New Year's Day and last only 10 days until opening night. With such little time for rehearsal, it seemed obvious that most of the current numbers of the cast would be asked to stay on. Sheirn, it was said, was watching the matinee with "backers" even as the rumours spread.
(Cornered by the press just after the final matinee Saturday, Sherin confirmed that everything looked set for Broadway. But he cautioned that papers would not be signed until Wednesday or Thursday. He declined to discuss names, but among those watching the play with him was New York producer Hillard Elkins).
So the backstage mood during both matinee and evening performances was one of professional detachment about the end of this production and barely repressed excitement about the next one.
"Many of us will have a hard choice now," said actor Robert Lanchester. "Presumably something will come up in the next few weeks and we'll have to choose between that and a commitment to this."
Most of the actors agreed there was something special about "Semmelweiss". Everyone has been associated with stinkers," said Gregory Abels, "and we all thought this was worthwhile. Nobody wanted it to end.
"I've been in a company with such a fondness for the play," said Maureen Silliman, who threw a Halloween party for the company last week and served some of the leftover wine backstage Saturday. (As one of the actresses playing a pregnant woman took a sip between acts, she explained, "It's good for pregnancy.")
Perhaps the most tantalizing question about the next production of "Semmelweiss" is this: Who will play the title role?
Sackler reportedly wrote the play with Colin Blakely, the British actor who played the role here, in mind. But Blakely sides with the producers in their dispute with Sherin and Sackler. "There are areas of the play I feel are too obscure for the audience," said Blakely Saturday.
The first actor to play Semmelweiss was Lewis J. Stadlen in Buffalo (the play opened there exactly one year prior to its closing here). Stadlen's wife, Kathleen Gray, appeared in both the Buffalo and Washington productions of the play, and she said at one point her husband tried to stop her from taking the Washington job because it "intensified his unhappiness" about not being cast in the Broadway-bound production.
Gray was not deterred from coming to Washington. The job was going to be her Broadway debut. (And Washington meant a lot to Gray and her husband. They met when she visited her former boyfriend Richard Dreyfuss in the Kennedy Center dressing room Dreyfuss shared with Stadlen during "The Time of Your Life" in 1972).
Stadlen saw "Semmelweiss" here, she reported, and "felt emotionally released." She believes that "eventually my being in it here helped our marriage.'
Now, "Its all working out like an incredible fantasy, according to Gray. Stadlen has been approached about taking the title role in the Broadway production of "Semmelweiss," and in the meantime his bargaining power has increased.
By several accounts, Stadlen played the role "angrier" and "a little crazier" than Blakely did, and the production in Buffalo generally was considered a more intense experience.
Blakely declined to discuss the possibility of his future with "Semmelweiss," but he doesn't sound bitter about the apparent failure of the production, which was his American debut. He's looking forward to seeing his family again, but he said "I've enjoyed the folks here. We've all been working toward the same thing." He even gave an impromptu party for the company following the final performance Saturday.
His assessment of the twist and turns of the "Semmelweiss" road? "That's show biz," he said.
For most of the cast, however, the road looks like it's continuing. A number of one-way train and rail tickets were spotted backstage Saturday, and they all let to New York.