Wit, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, has garnered numerous awards, dozens of productions and tons of media ink, but one thing it hadn’t yet had was an African-American lead actress. That changed, Oct. 14, when New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse began performances of Wit featuring Suzzanne [sic] Douglas, directed by Seattle Rep veteran Ted Sod.
Wit, which officially opened Oct. 18 and ends its scheduled run Nov. 12, tells of an icy literary professor who discovers the reason for kindness and human interaction when she's hit with fourth-stage ovarian cancer. Both Kathleen Chalfant and Judith Light played the lead role Off Broadway.
Also serving up George Street’s Wit are two-time Tony winner Helen Gallagher (Pal Joey, No, No, Nanette), David Wolos Fonteno (Hapgood), Scott Andrew Harrison and Jodi Somers. Designing the show are Joe Saint (lighting), Chris Bailey (sound), Ted Simpson (set) and Karen Ledger (costumes).
An established African-American actress with a career that spans more than 20 years, Douglas' Broadway credits include Into the Woods, The Wiz and The Threepenny Opera (in the Lotte Lenya role opposite Sting).
In an interview with critic Simon Saltzman for TotalTheater, actress Douglas said she really got a handle on the part when she looked in the mirror — after shaving her head. "It's funny that when I'm on the street, people who don't know me must think I am recovering from something... Although at first it was foreign, alien-like, I realized looking in the mirror it was me, and my hair or lack of it is not me." She added that the play’s theme is about “living a life and having a complete life... Vivian Bearing becomes so obsessed with Donne and becoming a scholar that she forgets to get out and live her life." In conjunction with its production of Wit, George Street installed a 42-piece sculpture, “Lila’s Breast,” created by Bill Giacalone and dedicated to his mother, who died of breast cancer.
For tickets and information on Wit at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, call (732) 246-7717.
In other George Street news, Chita Rivera is a very busy stage veteran, and the Garden State is all the richer for it. Following her recent star turn in the Paper Mill Playhouse's mounting of Cole Porter's Anything Goes, she will appear in Venecia, a new play adapted and directed by Arthur Laurents at George Street.
Argentine playwright Jorge Accame's gentle comedy, which receives its U.S. Premiere at George Street, is about the women of a broken-down brothel who all hope for a better life. They get together to help send the oldest, La Vieja (Rivera), to her dream destination: lovely and haunting Venice.
Rivera has appeared in the original productions of such landmark musicals as West Side Story, Bye, Bye Birdie, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Venecia is scheduled for Feb. 10-March 11, 2001.
Also, the George Street Playhouse isn't kidding about its commitment to developing and producing new plays. The company recently named George Ryan as artistic associate to help manage the literary department, and the theatre's newly-announced 2000-01 season line-up features three world premieres. In announcing the new slate, artistic director David Saint noted that his past two seasons included premieres by Anne Meara (Down the Garden Paths), Allan Knee (Syncopation) and the aforementioned Arthur Laurents (Jolson Sings Again). All of which have either tried, or are still trying, to reach New York.
This season, Laurents returns to George Street, not only with a new play, Claudia Lazlo, but as director and adaptor of s Venecia, having its U.S. premiere. A.R. Gurney, whose Ancestral Voices played at George Street last season, will premiere his Human Events at the theatre in mid-winter.
Here's the remaining George Street season line-up (as of Nov. 8):
• The Spitfire Grill (Nov. 25-Dec. 24). Based on Lee David Zlotoff's movie, this new musical will be directed by artistic director Saint. The title is the name of a restaurant, where the no-nonsense owner, Hannah, and a former women's prison inmate, Percy, trying to start over develop a friendship -- and a contest. Grill is a collaboration by Fred Alley and James Valcq, with Valcq doing the music, Alley penning the lyrics, and the duo adapting the book. Valcq is best known for writing the book and score for Off-Broadway's Zombies From the Beyond. Alley collaborated with James Kaplan on the Weavers-based revue, Goodnight Irene!, as well as on the regionally-popular Lumberjacks in Love. New York producers are already keeping a particularly keen eye on this one for transfer possibilities.
• Human Events (Jan. 6-Feb. 4, 2001). The latest by the prolific A.R. Gurney is set in a small New England college, where an enthusiastic British teacher tries to revitalize the humanities department. Instead, this racing demon nearly spins it into butter. Artistic director Saint helms this new comedy by the author of The Dining Room, Far East and Sylvia.
• Venecia (Feb. 10-March 11, 2001), starring Chita Rivera.
• TBA (March 17-April 15, 2001). Ethan McSweeny, currently directing Broadway's The Best Man, will stage a show yet to be announced. The young director, a former associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington DC and who helmed Master Class last season at George Street, has just been named the company's associate artistic director, starting this season.
• Claudio Lazlo, (April 21-May 20, 2001). Cigdem Onat, who was featured in the Lincoln Center revival of Arthur Laurents' Time of the Cuckoo last season, will star in his brand new play, to be directed by artistic director Saint. Here, she plays a "domineering, passionate actress" whose tumultuous behavior nearly sabotages her most important role.
As for the George Street "Next Stage" second stage season, look for an expansion of last year's "Diva Project" to arrive May 9-19, 2001. This year, eight performers -- women and men -- will offer solo works in "The Diva and Gentle Men Project," which artistic associate and director of education and outreach Ted Sod is curating.
And plans for the 2001-02 season are also in the nascent stage. Waiting for Tadashi, a play by Velina Hasu Houston that was going to be done this-coming season, will instead arrive a year later. Artistic director Saint is still tentatively slated to direct. Houston had a hit in Los Angeles with her play, Tea. The Kennedy Center honored her for her pieces Asa Ga Kimashita (Morning Has Broken) and The Matsuyama Mirror. Other credits include Kokoro (True Heart), American Dreams, Cultural Lives and Hula Heart. Her Ikebana (Living Flowers) will be produced this fall at CA's Pasadena Playhouse.
Also on tap is the culmination of the Bridge Project, being produced with the Crossroads Theatre (an African-American company next door to George Street) to and L.A.'s Cornerstone Theatre Company. The latter goes into neighborhoods and works with non-performers to create a play that addresses issues affecting the community. We just finished the first year. "It's a huge undertaking," spokesperson Shanks told Playbill On-Line, "involving hundreds, even thousands of people... Their last pieces included The Good Person of New Haven and The Steel Project. The new piece is about New Brunswick, which has strong African-American, Latino, Jewish and Hungarian communities, as well as Rutgers college students and people who've lived here for decades. It's a fascinating process. The working title is `New Brunswick Stories,' and professional playwrights were recently hired to help develop the piece, which we'll produce in 2001-02, possibly as the season opener."
For subscription and ticket information on the George Street Theatre, 9 Livingston Ave. in New Brunswick, call (732) 246-7717.
--By Robert Simonson
and David Lefkowitz