Opening night! Walking into the lobby we could feel the excitement. A delivery of flowers came for one of the actresses. Food arrived for the post-play reception. In the theater, actors finished their final run-through, going over lines, zoned out, pacing back and forth with earphones on. Everyone helped out with last-minute preparations. Even director Eric C. Stein got into the act, picking up a broom and sweeping the stage.
My wife and I had come to Fells Point, in Baltimore, to see the Vagabond Players’ opening-night performance of “Rabbit Hole,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning portrait of a family devastated after the death of their 4-year-old son. The show would run for six weeks.
Fells Point, of course, is known for its night life, restaurants and bar scene. But we were here for a different take on this compact, walkable neighborhood. After dinner at the Thames Street Oyster House, we took a short walk over the cobblestones to South Broadway to the home of the Vagabond Players, an attractive brick building in the center of the block.
The Players have a long, proud history in Baltimore — next year will mark the company’s 100th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, next season the Players will showcase six productions from past years.
The Vagabond Players have resided at their current location since 1974. Prior to that they lived up to their name, occupying several locations around the city — beginning with the 60-seat storefront in the Mount Vernon section where they opened, way back in 1916, with three one-act plays. One of the plays was by local talent H.L. Mencken.
The theater was part of the Little Theatre Movement of the early 20th century, when small non-Equity playhouses featured experimental and innovative productions and provided an outlet for aspiring playwrights. Among the authors whose works were staged by the Vagabond were Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Zelda Fitzgerald. (The chair F. Scott Fitzgerald sat on after a performance of his wife’s “Scandalabra” sits forlornly among the props, beneath a broken lamp and some old costumes.)
Today the venues are generally community theaters, serving local audiences with time-tested productions in human-scale venues. “Twenty-five to 35 people seem awfully small in a 250-seat theater,” Stein said. But a venue like the 104-seat Vagabond will not seem so empty should the play attract a limited audience.
And the intimate dimensions of the space can increase a production’s impact. The night I saw “Rabbit Hole” performed for a nearly full house, I was so close to the action, I felt like I was part of the play. I was completely swept up in the story of the family’s loss.
First-time visitor Lisa Hammann, 51, of Baltimore was also struck by “the intensity of the message.” Her friend Scott Greatorex, 53, of Lutherville, Md., concurred. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said, “but I related to the characters as a parent.”
After such an emotional performance, a drink was in order, and at Fells Point, there is no lack of options. We chose the Tavern at the Admiral, beneath the Admiral Fell Inn, where we were staying, and where the beverage menu is unusual. Where else can you get such 18thcentury-inspired drinks as the Captain’s Grog, featuring dark rum, or the Admiral’s Tankard, made with sherry and champagne?
The next day, we stopped for breakfast at Jimmy’s Restaurant, a Fells Point favorite in the same spot and run by the same family since 1946, where you can get spanakopita or a hamburger or a stack of pancakes. Not fine dining, but filling, tasty and quick.
We squeezed into the last table available and surveyed the crowd: eclectic — working people, tourists, students and neighbors, many greeted by name as they came in. Jimmy Filipidis, the engaging co-owner, moved about the room chatting with customers. At our table he explained the changing crowds. The weekend is tourists, local tourists and neighborhood people, he said. During the week, local working people. “It’s always a good experience here,” he said.
Later, we stopped at Sophia’s Place, a Polish deli and bakery at the Marketplace on Aliceanna. Traditional Polish mushroom soup and red-and-white borscht simmered in pots behind the counter. Sophia said that pierogi are a favorite item, as is stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut with sausage, all made on the premises.
“Nothing makes me happier than when a customer says, ‘My grandmother made it like this,’ ” Sophia said.
We bought a dozen kolaczkis — flaky, diamond-shaped pastries filled with apricot or cherry jam — to take home with us.
Leaving Sophia’s Place, I looked across South Broadway, where I could see people entering the Vagabond theater; the Players were already starting rehearsals for their next production, “Side by Side by Sondheim.” Opening night was over — but the show must go on, as it has for nearly a century.
Admiral Fell Inn
888 S. Broadway
Another Fells Point tradition, having been in business since 1985, originally as a bed-and-breakfast, and since 1996 as an 80-room hotel. Rooms are small and oddly shaped, and each one is named after a prominent Baltimorean. Pet-friendly. Valet parking $29 per night. Rooms from $149.
The Inn at Henderson’s Wharf
1000 Fell St.
A boutique hotel with 38 rooms all on the first floor, in an old tobacco factory right on the water. Continental breakfast included. Offers butler service. Self-parking, $10 per night plus tax. Rooms from $189.
Thames Street Oyster House
1728 Thames St.
Serving Maryland, Mid-Atlantic and New England seafood. A la carte oyster bar offers East and West Coast oysters. Entrees from $18.
801 S. Broadway
A Fells Point staple since 1946. Offers tasty, inexpensive diner food with a Greek touch. Breakfast and lunch from $5; dinner entrees from $7.
1640 Aliceanna St.
Polish deli and pastry shop known for pierogi and soups, located in the Broadway Market. Polish doughnuts are popular. Soups from $2.50; sandwiches from $5.50; paninis from $6.35.
806 S. Broadway
“Side By Side By Sondheim” runs through May 17. Tickets from $14.
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Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.