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BRIGHT LIGHTS BECKON Casting call draws acting enthusiasts to Fells Point


Driving down from Bel Air on a dark and windy night, Angela Davis is bound for the bright lights of Broadway.

Parked in Fells Point, she pulls open the door that separates the wanna-be's from the willing. Timidly, she peers around the vestibule of the Vagabond Players theater. Then, digging her hands deep in her red parka, she recites the actor's version of the Fifth Amendment.

"I'm not sure if I'll read," she tells the stage manager.

Mrs. Davis, who does read, is among the early arrivals. The next night, several dozen hopefuls are huddled on the faded couches and gold brocade chairs waiting to audition for nine parts in "Hay Fever," a comedy by Noel Coward.

Acting aspirants all, they are accountants and bankers, secretaries

and librarians, consultants and construction workers. They are ready to rehearse nights and weekends, forgo family and friends, memorize speeches and work for free.

"I saw two plays on Broadway when I was 10 or 11 -- 'Oklahoma' and 'Charley's Aunt,' " says Mrs. Davis, a suburban housewife with poufed brown hair and a grown son. "That kicked something off in me and I said, 'One day I'd do that.'

"But when I grew up in the 1950s, women didn't try out for theater. People always said you can't do this, and you can't do that. I was always a little different. But it's taken 40 years."

The Vagabond Players, currently celebrating its 75th season, survives on its volunteers' raw will. Otherwise-sane men and women find a second home amid the fear, energy and excitement that make strangers intimate and turn a wooden stage into a world of its own. For those who hear the call, no hours are too long, no demands too strenuous, no task too quixotic.

Carol Mason, "Hay Fever's" director, works five theater-related jobs. Fortunately, the other four pay.

"Some people go boating; others collect stamps," says Ms. Mason, whose clipped British accent is one reason she is directing Coward's upper-crust English comedy.

Dan Baileys and Mary Knauer love it. They also love each other. And they met here, at the Vagabond, doing what they love.

"We met here in 1985," says Ms. Knauer, secretary to the director at the Pratt Library, during first night auditions for "Hay Fever." "We were doing 'The Dresser' together."

Two years later, they married. Last summer, the couple starred at the same community theater. She took top billing in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." He played the title role in "Zorba."

"It helps when you do community theater to have a spouse who understands," says Mr. Baileys, a marketing consultant. "And, yes. We do rehearse together."

At this audition, Ms. Mason calls groups of twos and threes into the empty theater to read for her. The script is new to many, but the casting call catches many old friends. When Mr. Baileys and Ms. Knauer trot down the aisle, they toss greetings to Ms. Mason before mounting the stage.

The nearly bare stage has old chairs and threadbare couches for props. The only sets are pea-green walls. But the dapper, blue-blazered Dan Baileys and his chic, black-sheathed wife breathe life into this minimalist arena.

Like local cousins of the Lunt-Fontaines, they conjure up an elegant drawing room in a country home. Effortlessly they pop into the effete tones and languorous gestures of the English upper class.

Angela Davis does not have the accent down pat.

She doesn't have it at all.

"Can you do a cockney accent or an Irish one?" asks Ms. Mason when Ms. Davis reads.

The director is looking for a glowering maid.

"I've only been in two plays," Ms. Davis answers. "I can do a Southern accent."

"Well, I do need someone with an English accent," Ms. Mason says.

Mrs. Davis understands. She makes the most of her exit: Striding to the edge of the stage, she gracefully steps down and thanks the director for the chance to read.

She departs quietly. She is not a member of the inner circle that maniacally embraces with each arrival and leave-taking.

William Runnebaum is becoming part of that clique. A native of Beaufort, S.C., he has been in Baltimore for 1 1/2 years.

"I am not too nervous," said the tall, blond, blue-eyed banker who studied drama in college. ". . . The nervousness is William."

The boisterousness is also William, but he tries to hide the trait when he auditions for Ms. Mason. She, however, reads something in his long, loose limbs and directs him to play the part with "puppy-dog" enthusiasm.

Would he like to act full-time?"

"I have a mortgage to feed," he exclaims.

"I like to do this because it is an opportunity to play something totally different than what I am -- a banker. It's a diversion."

But it's not a diversion for Amy Whelan. Theater is sacred space.

Ms. Whelan recently moved from Dallas to Baltimore. Fleeing the glitz and glamour of tony Texas, she now feels free to step into sneakers, pull on old jeans and forget her makeup.

She's also closer to New York.

"I love acting," says the 24-year-old Texan without a trace of twang. "I wanted to be an actress ever since my sister wrote an Easter play."

Ms. Whelan, one of the younger hopefuls, could have been cast as a coed when she walked onstage. She wore blue jeans and a rust-colored cardigan. Her long chestnut-brown hair was pulled back with a barrette.

She not only had the accent. She seemed to inhabit the part of a slightly loopy English aristocrat. Not a bad showing for the first time out: This was her first audition since college.

"I was petrified to come here," she confessed afterward. "There were so many people here, and I didn't know anyone."

It was easier when she began studying her lines.

"The theater for me is what a church is for other people," she explained. "I would have really disappointed myself if I stayed home.

"I don't know if I will get a part, but I think I read well. I got over the obstacles to come. I did it. That's something."

Amy Whelan and William Runnebaum will both appear in "Hay Fever," which opens May 17 at the Vagabond Players theater, 806 S. Broadway in Fells Point.

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