Six seasons ago, John Bruce Johnson reluctantly appeared in a production of A. R. Gurney's "Love Letters" at the Spotlighters Theatre. Two weeks ago, he returned to the role. In both cases, he agreed to perform out of respect and admiration for the theater's founder, Audrey Herman. This time, however, he was performing in her memory.
"I had to say yes because there was Audrey," said Johnson, who prefers to direct. President emeritus of the Vagabond Players, Johnson is one of 64 local actors - 32 couples in all - appearing in Gurney's two-person epistolary drama.
Each weekend through Nov. 5, four different couples are taking the stage in this distinctive play at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, as it was renamed after Herman's death in December. A chronicle of the 50-year relationship of two upper-crust WASPs, "Love Letters" consists entirely of the characters' written correspondence. In keeping with the nature of the communication, Gurney insists the text be read, not memorized.
From the start, this has allowed "Love Letters" to be presented with minimal scenery (a desk or two) and rehearsals. In its initial New York staging in 1989, actors stepped into the roles on Monday nights, when most theaters are dark. In Los Angeles, TV and movie stars performed it between jobs. George Hearn and Colleen Dewhurst (in her final stage role) gave the play its Baltimore debut at the Mechanic Theatre in 1991. Four years later, Spotlighters had a go at it with six couples, one of which consisted of Herman and Johnson.
"Love Letters" turned out to be Herman's final performance at the theater she established in 1962. This made the play an ideal choice for the theater's new owners, Bob Russell and Jonathan Claiborne, to kick off their inaugural season. Russell tapped local film and theater director Steve Yeager to stage the production.
Yeager, who won the 1998 Sundance Filmmakers Trophy for his documentary "Divine Trash," was one of many area theater and film professionals who got their start at the Spotlighters. In 1967, he was a Towson University student when Herman gave him a chance to direct "Of Mice and Men."
When Russell called, Yeager didn't even wait to hear which play he wanted him to direct. The words "Audrey Herman" were enough to get him to sign on. Yeager's next task was to assemble performers who represent a cross-section of local theater history. "We have some people who have never been to the Spotlighters, but they knew of Audrey Herman and they knew her reputation," the director said before a recent rehearsal.
The list climbed rapidly to 32 couples - so many that a second Sunday performance was added each weekend. Even so, Yeager was unable to accommodate everyone who wanted to participate. The final lineup includes WJZ anchor Denise Koch, WJHU talk show host Marc Steiner, jazz singer Ethel Ennis, artist Les Harris and Towson University dean Maravene Loeschke, and noted Baltimore actors Tana Hicken and Vivienne Shub. The cast list crosses racial as well as age barriers, including a pair of seniors at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Amanda Brocato and Andrew Grosshandler.
More than a third of the couples are married. Rodney and Janise Bonds met on the Spotlighters stage a decade ago, when they were appearing in Neil Simon's "Chapter Two." "We really looked at Audrey as the woman who introduced us," said Rodney Bonds, chairman of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.
Yeager began the run of "Love Letters" on Sept. 15 with two people who (together with Herman) have been pillars of the Baltimore community theater movement for decades - Johnson, repeating the role he played opposite Herman, and Beverly Sokal, president of Fell's Point Corner Theatre.
Johnson feels the play is a particularly fitting memorial to Herman because the character she played, an artist and non-conformist, reflects her iconoclastic temperament. On opening night, Herman's sister, Genevieve Nyborg, echoed his sentiment: "It's heartrending, but it's good. It's good because her lifestyle and her ideas on life are being perpetuated."
Proceeds from "Love Letters" benefit the Audrey Herman Theatre Scholarship Endowment at Towson University. Yeager is videotaping pre-performance interviews with each couple, which he plans to archive at the university.
Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $15.
Here's this weekend's lineup: Cindy Miller and Jim Hild, Friday; Steve Antonsen and Donna Sherman, Saturday; Doug Roberts and Rudy Miller, Sunday matinee; Debbie Bennett and Jerome Gregg, Sunday evening. For more information, call 410-752-1225.
A winning one-act
Maryland playwright and actor Willy Conley's one-act drama, "The Fallout Shelter," has won the 17th annual Playwright Discovery Award, sponsored by VSA arts, a Washington-based non-profit organization dedicated to "promoting the creative power in people with disabilities." The $2,500 prize-winning play will be presented at the Kennedy Center's Theatre Lab in Washington on Oct. 2.
Set in Baltimore, "The Fallout Shelter" is about two deaf couples who encounter a man with a mental illness who is convinced that a nuclear bomb has been dropped on the Inner Harbor.
Conley, a Baltimore native who lives in Laurel, is an assistant professor of theater at Washington's Gallaudet University and an associate artist at Center Stage. His play, which is accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences, was selected by a panel of theater professionals including director Jack Hofsiss, actress Marlee Matlin, playwright Wendy Wasserstein and producer Fred Zollo.
Although no seats remain for the Kennedy Center performance, "The Fallout Shelter" will also be produced at Elstad Auditorium at Gallaudet, 800 Florida Ave., N.E., Washington. Show times are 8 p.m. Nov. 10, 11, 17, 18, and 2 p.m. Nov. 12. Tickets cost $10. Call 202-651-5500; TTY: 202-651-5502.