Saint Vincent summer theater gala eases the heat with refreshing comedy

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As summer theater goes, Saint Vincent College has a history that is almost as interesting as the plays it produces.

The venture first got off the ground in 1969, when the Rev. Tom Devereux — as the director — and a group of students mounted six plays in six weeks, with everyone pitching in on everything: rehearsing, performing, building sets, making costumes, running lights, manning the box office and cleaning the theater lobby and rest rooms. At the end of that summer, each person involved earned $85 for six weeks of work.

The following year, Father Devereux landed on a new idea. He offered patrons a post-performance party with complimentary beer, popcorn and hot dogs. That‘‍s how the Cabaret — a tradition that continues to this day — was born.

In the mid-1970s, Joe Reilly took over when he became the theater’s artistic director. After his death in 2008, his daughter Colleen took over the position. The Reilly family considers the 1974 production of “The Most Happy Fella” as Colleen’s stage debut — although no one saw her. That was because her mother, Pat, pregnant with her at the time, had a role in the show.

"I was 3 when I started watching summer theater rehearsals and later even acted in two shows my father directed," Ms. Reilly said.

On Friday, Saint Vincent Summer Theatre will tap into yet another tradition, one that has been around for 25 years. Starting at 6:30 p.m. at the college’s Robert S. Carey Student Union, the Summer Theatre Gala will be a party with complimentary food and beverages.

"It’s really a full meal with a hors d’oeuvres, a pasta bar, a carving station and an open bar with beer, wine and cocktails," Ms. Reilly said.

After the party, attendees will move into the 300-seat theater for a performance of “Jeeves in Bloom” starring stage, film and television actors, Stuart and Joy Pankin. Tickets for the Gala are $125.

“The play is a wonderful comedy based on the stories of a British author, P.G. Wodehouse, best known for his accounts of Jeeves, a valet, and Bertie Wooster, the young man he works for,” Ms. Reilly said. “I’ve been a fan of Wodehouse’s stories ever since my father read them to me. The play is a delightful adaptation by Margaret Raether full of colorful characters, good laughs and fun times.”

“Jeeves in Bloom” is a recent comedy that debuted in 2009 at the Artist Ensemble Theater in Rockford, Ill. To Ms. Reilly’s knowledge, the Saint Vincent production will mark the first time the show has been staged in the Pittsburgh region.

Each summer, the theater mounts four productions and over the years has performed a diverse mix of genres — musicals, comedies, classics, dramas, mysteries and even children’s theater. The actors are primarily Pittsburgh-area based because a part of the theater’s mission statement calls for working with local artists.

Philomena and Bill Dymond of Latrobe have been summer theater patrons from the very beginning and have since become "Friends of the Theater" donors. They’ve been Gala committee members for 25 years; and they also chaired the committee once.

“Father Tom’s aim was to make the theater the most enjoyable experience he could muster, and the Reilly family has since carried on the atmosphere he carefully created,” Mr. Dymond said.

“Initially, we noticed the audience was made up mostly of locals, but now we’re drawing from a much wider area,” Mrs. Dymond said. “All things considered, the price of the tickets hasn’t risen much over the years. When you add in the Cabaret, it’s a great entertainment value for the money. Both Bill and I are strong advocates of the theater and consider it a great asset to the community.”

Pat Conroy is another patron with the summer theater since its inception. For the past 15 years, he has organized a family theater outing with his wife, brothers, sisters, cousins, their spouses and friends that starts with dinner at a local restaurant and ends with a play, along with the Cabaret.

“While I attended Saint Vincent College, Father Tom was my dorm prefect, and we became friends,” he said. “When he started the summer theater, my wife, Mary Ann, and I attended and later took our three daughters along.”

“Each year, when the list of plays was released, we asked Father Tom what would be the most appropriate play for our young daughters. Through the years, they’ve attended many performances with us until they graduated from high school. This summer, Mary Ann and I are looking forward to seeing ‘Jeeves in Bloom’ because Stu Pankin, one of our favorite actors, will be performing.”

Details: 724-805-2901.

Freelance writer Dave Zuchowski:

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