Baltimore's Everyman Theatre has general admission seating and on a recent weeknight, most of the desirable seats were filled by a few minutes after 7 - a full half-hour before the performance was to begin.
The drill went as follows: Late-comers would ascend the 10 steps to the top of the seating platform in the intimate, black-box theater, and a dismayed look would spread across their faces as they surveyed the dwindling possibilities. (When they said, come early, they weren't kidding, one 20-something woman with a mass of carroty hair muttered to a companion.)
The current production - Proof, David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about genius, madness and family relationships - is the most successful show in the troupe's 14-year existence and though the run ends tonight, the theater's cast and crew still are not quite sure what to make of it.
Artistic director Vince Lancisi knows better than anyone that the alchemy that makes some shows hits is nothing if not ephemeral. The quality of this production of Proof unquestionably is at a high level - but it's no higher than other shows that Everyman has done in the past.
"Who knows why this one is magic?" Lancisi said. "If we could only bottle whatever it is ... " His voice trailed off. "That's why we have to celebrate these moments when they come."
For the first time in their lives, the cast members have been treated as though they were Broadway stars. Megan Anderson, who plays the role of the talented, depressed Catherine, was astounded, embarrassed and delighted when two girls walked up to the stage during the curtain call and handed her a dozen immense purple-pink roses. Carl Schurr, who performed the role of Catherine's math-genius father, was stopped by a fan in the grocery store. Director Lancisi was recognized by an auto mechanic.
Audience members approached the actors to tell them their personal stories: This man had cared for an elderly aunt or uncle. This woman had a rough relationship with her father.
Everyman typically sells about 4,800 tickets for its most popular shows; Proof sold 7,000 seats, mostly through the addition of extra performances and, finally, an extra week to the run. Still, that wasn't nearly enough to keep up with the demand. All but one performance of the extra week sold out. Requests for tickets kept pouring in from as far away as Pennsylvania and Washington.
Box-office manager Miriam Browning-Nance and her staff kept detailed waiting lists, but after they hit 30 or 40 names for the 168-seat theater, they stopped recording them. What was the point?
"People would ask me, kind of joking, if I take bribes," Browning-Nance said, rolling her brown eyes. "Some people were really desperate."
For the actors, all underpaid, some with vivid memories of past performances that have turned sour, of performances before just a handful of people, the buzz about the show has been both consolation and affirmation. The entire cast has received letters from enthusiastic fans, and the actors can recite them almost word for word.
"I came here from New York almost five years ago - an avowed theater snob," Diane Rankin of Reisterstown wrote. "I was sure that theater so far off-Broadway would hardly be worth watching if you'd ever seen 'real' theater. I couldn't have been more wrong!"
So, when the cast takes its final bow tonight, it will be one of those happy-sad moments in director Lancisi's life. He is proud beyond measure of what the actors and crew have accomplished. "This is the very show that I would like to put out to the public and say: 'This is the best of what Everyman can do," he said.
And he is sad that he can't find some way to prolong the magic.
He and Laurens Wilson, Everyman's interim managing director, looked into extending the run of Proof still further by moving it to a different location; they can't keep it in their theater at 1728 N. Charles Ave. because the next show in Everyman's season, Slow Dance on the Killing Ground, opens March 17. But the two most likely venues to house Proof, the Baltimore Museum of Art and Theatre Project, already were booked.
"If I could only have kept this show running," Lancisi said wistfully. "We were jumping through hoops trying to make it work. We've had to turn away hundreds and hundreds of people, and that's just killing us."