Josie Abady, Director of Cleveland Playhouse and Circle in the Square, Dead at 52

By Kenneth Jones
27 May 2002

Josephine R. Abady, a major regional theatre director who served as artistic director of The Cleveland Playhouse and Circle in the Square in New York City, died at her Manhattan home May 25, according to relatives and friends in the theatre community.



Josephine R. Abady, a major regional theatre director who served as artistic director of The Cleveland Playhouse and Circle in the Square in New York City, died at her Manhattan home May 25, according to relatives and friends in the theatre community.

Ms. Abady, 52, had battled breast cancer. Friends called her Josie.

A theatre educator who also staged plays around the country, as well as a high-profile Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, starring Madeline Kahn, Ms. Abady began her professional career as artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA, in 1979. Her festival staging of The Boys Next Door was a success that moved to Off-Broadway in 1987. She was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for her direction of the Tom Griffin comedy-drama. She remained artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival until 1988, when she assumed the artistic directorship of The Cleveland Playhouse and remained to 1994.

Prior to the Massachusetts fest, Ms. Abady earned her undergraduate degree from Syracuse University and later a Master of Fine Arts from Florida State University. Right out of graduate school she joined the faculty at Bennington College, teaching theatre. She left Bennington to become head of the theatre department at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA, 1976-79.

For The Cleveland Playhouse, she directed Born Yesterday with Kahn and Ed Asner. The production, her first at the Ohio regional theatre, moved to Broadway.

Also at the Playhouse, she created an international theatre exchange. She directed A Streetcar Named Desire in Volgograd in 1991 and brought the production back to the Playhouse for a sold-out run where the audiences used headphones for the English translation. She was a guest director at The National Theatre of Slovakia, where she directed a production of The House of Blue Leaves. During previews of her production of The Philadelphia Story in Manchester, England, the IRA bombed the theatre. Ms. Abady made front-page news when she openly criticized The Royal Family for their silence in failing to support the bombing victims. She subsequently found an alternative space for the production so performances could continue as scheduled.

Among her other signature accomplishments were bringing African-American audiences to the theatre and doing more works written or directed by women.

In 1994, Ms. Abady was invited by Circle in the Square, a Broadway theatre company that had been dark for two years, to become its next artistic director. She directed a hit revival of Bus Stop starring Mary-Louise Parker and Billy Crudup and was nominated as a producer for The Tony Award for her production of The Rose Tattoo. The theatre company shuttered despite its high-profile stagings.

Ms. Abady had been given a five-and-a-half year contract when she took over the reins of Circle in the Square in 1994, but was told in the summer of 1996 (while she was directing a play in London) that Gregory Mosher would take over the management of the theatre and that the theatre had cancelled the four-play season Ms. Abady had planned for 1996-97. She sued board members for breach of contract, among other things.

Mosher was able to mount only one production at Circle in the Square, Pam Gems' Stanley, a Royal National Theatre import starring Antony Sher (reprising his Olivier-winning role) as the troubled painter Sir Stanley Spencer. The drama, a critical but not financial success, ran February-April 1997. The theatre closed its doors shortly thereafter.

In 1994, Ms. Abady directed a short film, "To Catch a Tiger," a movie inspired by her mother's legacy as a prominent civil rights activist. The screenplay was written by her husband, Michael Krawitz, and starred her sister Caroline Aaron.

She was also guest artist/adjunct professor at the Tisch School for the Performing Arts at NYU, University of Washington, and Smith College.

In the last six months, according to family, Ms. Abady had her most productive time since her diagnosis with breast cancer. She directed three productions back to back. In the fall of 2001 she staged a new version of Abyssinia at The Lyric Theatre in Texas (the musical's 1991 Cleveland premiere remains one of the biggest hits in The Playhouse history). She returned to her hometown of Richmond, VA, to direct a production of Wit, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a cancer patient and the treatment she endures.

The last production she directed was Charles Busch's The Tale of the Allergist Wife at Florida's Asolo Theatre, connected to FSU, where Abady earned her MFA degree. In addition, she ran the lunchtime play-reading series called Food For Thought in Manhattan.

"Josie's leadership in the not-for-profit theatre in the 1980s and 1990s was remarkable," Ben Cameron, executive director of The Theatre Communications Group, said in a statement, when he heard of Ms. Abady's condition. "She is known for the sharpness of her mind, her ability for working with actors, her caustic humor and her generous heart."

She is survived by her husband, Michael Krawitz, brother Samuel Abady, sister Caroline Aaron, sister-in-law Jane Watson Abady, brother-in-law James Foreman, two nieces, Rachael Abady and Sydney Foreman, three nephews, Aaron Abady, Joshua Abady, and Ben Foreman.

A memorial is planned for Aug. 21 in New York City on what would have been her 53rd birthday.