Previews begin Sept. 8 for the commercial Off-Broadway production of Joan Vail Thorne's comedy, The Exact Center of the Universe, the Frances Sternhagen starrer which had a critically-embraced, nonprofit April 1999 run at Women's Project & Productions Theatre.
The rest of the WPP cast, including Reed Birney, Marge Redmond, Tracy Thorne and Bethel Leslie were to join Sternhagen in the transfer, but Leslie bowed out for personal reasons, and her role is now played by Sloane Shelton (recent revivals of Orpheus Descending and The Shadow Box).
Vain Thorne's warm, Southern-fried family comedy, with Sternhagen as a matron unsettled by her son's romance, plays at the Century Theatre at the Century Center for the Performing Arts (previous home to Snakebit). John Tillinger recreates his WPP direction following a busy season of staging Broadway's now-closed Getting and Spending and Night Must Fall.
Sternhagen, who has won two Tonys over her long career, plays Vada Love Powell, a matriarch from the Deep South whose small world is rocked when her son, Apple (played by Birney), marries without her consent. Gossip flares, barbs are tossed and secrets are revealed.
Markinson told Playbill On-Line in May 1999 he was taken with the warmth of the play. He said the work is a spiritual sister to Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias and the film "Fried Green Tomatoes." Markinson observed, "I thought it was very human, people related to it. I'm getting a little tired of shows grabbing you by the throat and knocking you out."
Markinson, who runs Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, said that his Broadway house is booked through the fall, so he and Haft looked to an Off-Broadway venue.
Among Sternhagen's most recent credits is the award-winning Lincoln Center Theatre revival of The Heiress starring Cherry Jones.
Birney's varied career has included such productions -- on Broadway, Off and Off-Off -- as Gemini, The Common Pursuit, The Family of Mann and Seven Blowjobs.
The initial non-profit run was produced by Women's Project & Productions March 30-May 2 at WPP Theatre (formerly Theater Four) on West 55th Street. Elsa Daspin Haft and Martin Markinson are producers of the commercial run.
Designers for Exact Center of the Universe are Michael Brown (sets), Carrie Robbins (costumes), Brian McDevitt (lighting) and Laura Grace Brown (sound).
Playwright Thorne's latest project is the libretto for the world premiere of Summer, for Berkshire Opera Company.
The Century Theatre is at 111 East 15th Street. Tickets are $17.50 $47.50. Call (212) 239-6200 for information.
-- By Kenneth Jones
and Robert Simonson
and David Lefkowitz