MONTGOMERY, ALA. -- Commanding a grassy rise beyond a silvery lake in a 200-acre park is the most beautiful -- and least known -- theater building I've seen on five continents.
This is the new home of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, an appreciation to his bride from a former postmaster general of the United States, Winton M. (Red) Blount. Carolyn Blount is a lover of Shakespeare, and her husband's family made its fortune in construction. As a result, Alabama now has its own State Theater. And what a theater!
There is a moving civility to this architectural vision, and one defers entering, relishing the gentle curve of the bricks, the gracefulness of the rosy lines. Inside, a long, rounded series of lobbies proves as satisfying -- lofty but not awesome. Over the stone flooring, gray and rose carpeting complements the walls.
There is further surprise. For all its 97,000 square feet, the building houses only two theaters, the Festival Stage, seating only 750, and the Octagon, only 200 seats around the three-quarter stage. The rest is given over to lobbies, offices, rehearsal spaces, technical, storage and dressing rooms, a handsome reception salon and a book-and-gift shop.
Clearly, not merely money has effected this, though without money -- $21.5 million in fact -- this vision could not have been realized. This is the company's 15th season -- its second in its new home. I visited its birthplace at Anniston, about halfway between Atlanta and Birmingham, four summers ago, where I found a vigorous company housed in a high school, doing five plays in repertory under the guidance of Martin L. Platt, artistic director, and Jim Volz, managing director.
At the time there was a rumor from the state capital of the Blount offer to build a theater here. In the years since, Platt and Volz and architects Thomas A. Blount, the founder's son, and L. Perry Pittman have thought hard and performed eloquently.
Here is a LORT -- League Of Resident Theaters -- company of 24 and a core of 15 graduates of the University of Alabama/ASF Professional Actor Training Program. Most of the leads are veterans of the regional companies now spread across America as well as New York stages and California studios. This year they have staged 13 works in the summer repertory.
Besides the six I saw -- "The Tempest," "The Taming of the Shrew," "Othello," "Misalliance," "Hedda Gabler" and "The Royal Family" -- there have been "Rough Crossing," "Terra Nova," "Tonight at 8:30," "Translations," "Master Harold . . . and the Boys," "Pump Boys and Dinettes" and "Zelda," a one-woman drama by William Luce about Montgomery's noted native, Zelda Fitzgerald.
Such an assortment requires a vast range of performing styles, from the classical to the modern. To achieve a comparable variety, Britain's National and Royal Shakespeare each employ in the neighborhood of 150 players. In true repertory theater, of which there are perhaps but six in North America, this means that some players are ideal for certain roles who may be merely indifferent in others.
Of immense value and classy professionalism are the departments of design, lighting and costuming. The administrative and production staffs, enviably manned, are furthered by the volunteers -- here "Will's Guild" -- so important to the running of our nonprofit theaters.
Besides the plays, there are concerts, "Theater in the Mind," a lecture series, and a strong "Schoolfest," through which 20,000 students from all over the state, as well as from Georgia and Florida, are bused in for morning matinees. In the season since the move from Anniston, attendance has risen by 650 percent, from 20,000 to more than 130,000. This is breathtaking, "instant" theater building audiences for the future.
The performance level is far more than respectable without quite achieving that of, say, Washington's Arena Stage, another LORT house. In the Shakespeare plays, ASF is superior to what Arena manages, as it should be; Arena's dominant bills accent realism.
In the smaller theater, Platt creates a simple but visually arresting "Tempest." For the masque interludes, often so troublesome, Platt employs contemporary musings of Oriental images, singing sages who, he suggests, know more than the isolated mortals. The effect of many-colored dress and formalities is enough to catch your throat, moisten your eyes -- magical moments in this simple box of space. With the splendid Philip Pleasants as Prospero, Robert Browning's concentrated Caliban and David Harum's appealing Ferdinand, this is the peer of any of the dozen or so -- and far more elaborate -- "Tempests" I've seen.
Platt's "Shrew" in the larger house is a brilliantly imagined tour de force, ingeniously conjuring a 1791 London production when, Platt imagines, the often-excised Christopher Sly prologue inspired Garrick into a full rehearsal. The many roles, handled by some 20 players, are dashingly dressed and wigged, an ingenious conceit indeed with Daniel Kern and Greta Lambert in the finest of their several leading parts. It's pure delight.
Again in the larger hall, Canada's Tony van Bridge stages "Misalliance" with rollicking dash. Deemed overly verbose and "minor Shaw," whatever that means, this reveals van Bridge as a Shavian who trusts his playwright's word. There's a fine ensemble effect of witty clarity, a deliciously stylish Hypatia from Nancy Boykin and a cracking fine Polish adventuress from Lisa McMillan. And how lucky the company is to have the veteran Betty Leighton, whose speech matches Pleasants' for projection and clarity in every role.
The "Othello," staged by Edward Stern, is notable for its fresh attitude toward the Moor, so often presented with booming voice and martial mien. David Toney plays him as a lean intellectual who easily might have captivated the Venice city council as well as the trusting Desdemona. Pleasants is a blustering Iago and the result is a different kind of contrast for their many dialogues, curiously modern despite the period dress.
While John Jensen's New York skyline is breathtaking for "The Royal Family," Stern's staging here is more nervous than suave, and he has allowed a variety of accents for what is a knit, even royal, family. Leighton and Bernard Kates catch the Kaufman and Hart manner, but I found this the least acceptable of my six.
"Hedda Gabler," in the Octagon under Platt's direction, found the cast slipping into the trap that defeats so many players deceived by a space's intimacy. As my matinee wore on, the players became increasingly inaudible, rather like a huddle with the quarterback's instructions kept secret. Most reviewers found this an admirable revival, and, I must confess, Hedda is not one of my favorites -- unless, to be sure, she is played by Glenda Jackson.
Tallying up, I find that I've admired four of my six productions, an exceptionally good average indeed, and the company is light years ahead of four years ago.
The season ends next Sunday.
As has happened in such comparable places as Stratford, Ontario, Ashland, Ore., and San Diego, art has inspired commerce. Already, four new motels of the national chains and some low-rise apartments have risen in the immediate vicinity and this side of town, once open territory, is burgeoning.
In the old town are such historic spots as remnants of the colonial period, the Confederacy's first capital, Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the street where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. And Maxwell Field's home of the Air University marks quite a shift from its World War II training period.
Next fall, the Blount park will open a matching Palladian building across the lake for the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. In a few years the growing trees will completely veil the city's neon horizon. Platt and Volz have stimulating, experimental plans for their two stages. And eventually, America will recognize this as one of the nation's most beautiful buildings.
The Flower family of England's Stratford have found their American counterpart in Alabama's Blount family. In Britain, beer and malt; in America, concrete and steel. Both families have saluted Shakespeare and company with too uncommon generosity.
Richard L. Coe is critic emeritus of The Washington Post.