On Stage: Celebrating legacies of the Odd Chair Playhouse and August Wilson

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Two weekends ago, while I was held up in Philadelphia on my way back from Dublin (where have you gone, US Airways?), there was a grand 30th reunion at Dowe's on Ninth of all those connected with the Odd Chair Playhouse.

Founded and run from 1968 to 1975 by Thom Thomas and the late Don Craig, the fabled company was just a tent in the Sheraton parking lot in Bethel Park, named for the 189 odd chairs it held. "Our most exciting and adventurous summer theater," the PG's George Anderson called it. And it nurtured a lot of talent. Since I couldn't be at the reunion, I turned to Thomas for a report.

"It was a great reunion, Chris. I expected perhaps 60 or 70 people, but 138 showed up! There was a great deal of hugging, kissing, tears and a lotta laughs."

The evening's highpoint was the entertainment segment, which "had a jump start with dazzling Lenora Nemetz taking the roof off singing 'Cabaret,' which she had performed at The Odd Chair. Paul Greeno sang 'I Believe in You,' which he also did at Odd Chair. This was followed by Rob Rosen doing 'Gonna Climb a Mountain' and a dynamic reading by Wayne Cook of a poem by Langston Hughes to commemorate the passing of August Wilson.

"Joe Joyce sang 'Good News' and David Tompkins (who reminded me he never had a solo, always duets with Flo Lacey), sang 'Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat.' Diane Jonardi and Joy Ann Crummie did songs from 'The Drunkard,' Harrison Shields and Jackie Nicoll did a tribute to veteran actress supreme Ann Muffly, singing 'It Couldn't Please Me More' from 'Cabaret,' which Ann had sung with Jim Horne.

"We recalled all those who have passed away during these 30 years, followed by Paul Palmer singing 'Lost in the Stars.' Etta Cox completely demolished the place with 'Carousel' from 'Jacques Brel.' Joe Negri did a delightful solo bit with special material he and Bob McCully had written, and the show ended with Donna Pelc Robinson arriving on stage to sing 'Aquarius.' All the members of our two productions of 'Hair' joined her as she segued into 'Let the Sunshine In,' which brought everyone to their feet clapping and singing."

Wow!

Out-of-towners included Daniel Graham, Wayne Darby Cook, Harrison Shields and Barbara Kerr (all from the West Coast), David Tompkins (Canada), Rick Malkin (Nashville), Roy Backes (Philly) and Joe Joyce, Mary and David Burt, David Brunetti, Sandee Conrad and Carol Toman (all New York).

Pittsburghers attending included Barbara Cloud, Bill Thunhurst, David Disney, Audrey Roth, Hank Stohl, Peggy Greenberg, Linda Holeva, Mary Ann Wolfe, Jody Welch, Joanie Negri, Leslie Brockett, Joanne Pasquinelli, Mike Samreny, John Amplas, Ed Blank, Tommy LaFitte, Ann Muffly, Don Arnheim, Carolyn Kerr, John Maione, Colette DiGosio "and so many, many more."

Messages came from Lacey (in rehearsal for Kathie Lee Gifford's musical, "Finding Aimee"), Horne (filming in New York), Judy Knaiz, Roma Torre and, as Thomas reports, "Rob Marshall, who's deep into putting final touches on his film, 'Memoirs of a Yenta' ... I mean, 'Geisha.' And Norman Roth sent a song sung by James Steliotes using 'I'm Calm' from 'Forum' but substituting 'I'm Thom.' Pretty funny."

Thomas ends: "Hey, this is pretty good ... writing my own review!!! As you can tell, I'm still excited and wish you could have been there."

The August Wilson Theatre

Nor was I in New York last Sunday, but Ted Pappas was:

"Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005 will live in my memory as one of the most moving and thrilling nights I have spent in a theater -- and I didn't even see a play. I had the privilege of representing Pittsburgh Public Theater at the dedication of the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway.

"Many of the great actors who brought Mr. Wilson's characters to blazing life were there, including Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leslie Uggams, Mary Alice, Charles S. Dutton, Keith David and Roger Robinson. Directors and producers were there too, and critics, including Robert Brustein, who often sparred with Mr. Wilson in print and in public.

"After a jam-packed cocktail reception that none of us wanted to end (it was a reunion for many), we heard selections from Mr. Wilson's works, brilliantly performed by Dutton, Lillias White and others. Cheering filled the theater after each speech, but the most moving moment came when Mr. Wilson's eldest daughter, Sakina, read his own words of thanks to the hushed audience.

"Afterwards all of us went out onto 52nd Street, and Mr. Wilson's widow, Constanza, and his two daughters cut a big red ribbon and the sky lit up with the neon AUGUST WILSON, in his own recognizable handwriting. What this must have felt like for Wilson's closest colleagues and all African-American theater artists I can only imagine. But for a fellow who has spent most of his life in the theater and who calls Pittsburgh his home, it was a night unlike any other."

Wow, indeed.


Post-Gazette drama editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.


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