Sunday, August 5, 2007

When Off Broadway Began, Barksdale Was There

The strapping young man in the photo to the left is Stu Falconer, pictured with Nancy Adams in Barkdale's 1957 production of The Little Hut. When I was researching old newspaper articles for my five part Happy Birthday Barksdale! series, I discovered that not only was Falconer here for the founding of Barksdale, he also was there for the founding of Off Broadway. In all my years in Richmond theatre, I've never heard anyone make note of this before. So I've decided to make note of it now.

Two of the newspapers that wrote about the founding of Barksdale Theatre at Hanover Tavern in 1953 mention that one of our six co-founders, Stu Falconer, worked as a stage manager at Circle in the Square in New York prior to moving south to help begin Barksdale. One of these papers identifies the show that Falconer managed as Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. Checking out the dates, it appears that he left the production in mid-run. Although Falconer may not have comprehended this at the time--the newspaper reporters certainly didn't--that particular production of Summer and Smoke is now credited as being the beginning of Off Broadway.

The Lortel Archive, named in honor of Off-Broadway legend Lucille Lortel (pictured to the left), is the semi-official internet database for Off-Broadway. When you look up the particulars of this production of Summer and Smoke, you’ll find the following quote: “Off-Broadway, for historical purposes, may be said to have begun in Sheridan Square on the evening of April 24, 1952 when Summer and Smoke with Geraldine Page opened at Circle in the Square and became the first major theatrical success below 42nd Street in thirty years.”

It seems that Stu Falconer left one legendary experience to start another.

Summer and Smoke was written by Tennessee Williams in 1948, shortly after the phenomenal success of The Glass Menagerie in 44 and A Streetcar Named Desire in 47. In the late 40s, Tennessee Williams was America's most famous playwright, even making it onto the cover of Time. With Smoke, Williams again wrote a play with a strong female lead, Alma Winemiller, a proper, unmarried minister’s daughter who is courted by her childhood sweetheart, the sexually-charged rake, Dr. John Buchanan.

Summer and Smoke opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre on October 6, 1948, directed by Margo Jones and designed by Jo Mielziner. The play received decidedly mixed reviews, with the conventional wisdom being that Alma Winemiller was a pale facsimile of Amanda Wingfield and/or Blanche DuBois. It ran for a disappointing 102 performances.

In 1952, the brilliant director and Eugene O’Neill champion, Jose Quintero (pictured to the left), decided that Summer and Smoke was a much better play than its Broadway production had indicated. He revived Williams’ script at his relatively new Off Broadway theatre, Circle in the Square, located at 159 Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. In the leading role of Alma Winemiller, Quintero cast a relatively unknown Southern actress named Geraldine Page.

The rest, as they say, is history. This Off Broadway production of Summer and Smoke was a smash hit with both critics and audiences. It ran for 356 performances, putting Off Broadway on the map for the very first time. The production catapulted Circle in the Square to the front of the Off Broadway movement. It also made Geraldine Page a star. She went from obscurity to being universally recognized as one of the finest actresses on the American stage. Her reputation was so great that, when Paramount made a film of Summer and Smoke in 1961, they insisted that Ms. Page play Alma. Her performance was nominated for an Oscar. The photo to the right is a publicity still from the film.

After her performance, Tennessee Williams himself began telling everyone that when he considered all the characters he had ever created, he considered Alma Winemiller to be his personal favorite.

Stu Falconer is not the only Richmond theatre connection to this story of the birth of Off Broadway. Due in no small part to the success of Summer and Smoke, the Circle in the Square became an Off Broadway icon, achieving so much success in the 50s and 60s that it chose to make the big move to Broadway proper in 1972. The Circle in the Square theatre we know today on W. 50th—home of Putnam County Spelling Bee—was build as the Broadway home for the Circle in the Square company. It is one of only two “thrust” theatres on Broadway, with audiences surrounding the stage on three sides, similar to our Barksdale spaces in Richmond and Hanover.

Over the next 20 years, the Circle in the Square company, with its Off Broadway sensibilities, found it increasingly impossible to succeed on Broadway. In 1994, the leadership of the company was passed from its co-founders, Jose Quintero and Theodore Mann, to former Richmonder Josie Abady (pictured to the left). Josie was the daughter of the late Theatre IV Board member Nina Abady. Josie had a tough time at Circle in the Square, and after only two years the reins were passed again to Gregory Mosher. More recently, Josie returned to Richmond to direct Wit at TheatreVirginia. It was to be her last production. She soon thereafter succombed to brain cancer, a disease she had been battling for years. It was a tremendous loss to American theatre.

In 1997, the Circle in the Square theater company closed its doors forever. However, the theatre facility that carries its name is still in operation today as a commercial Broadway theatre. In addition to housing smaller Broadway productions like Spelling Bee, the facility houses the Circle in the Square Theatre School, the only accredited training conservatory associated with a Broadway theatre. Our own Chase Kniffen is an alumnus of the Circle in the Square School.

As for Summer and Smoke, Williams revised the script in 1964, re-titling it Eccentricities of a Nightingale. Nightingale was produced on Swift Creek Mill’s Sunday Series in the late 70s, starring Janie Bushway and our own Phil Whiteway.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating. Please keep writing more like this. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry to learn of Josie Abady's death. I knew her in her youth, and had no idea that she had died. What a wonderful and inspirational family. Such strong women. What's happening with her sister Caroline, do you know? I appeared with her years ago in a Dogwood Dell production of Winnie the Pooh.

Bruce Miller said...

I've written a "Where Are They Now" post on Caroline Abady--thanks for the idea. It should be published on Monday, Aug 20.