Old classic opens new Olney theater


It's been described as a cross between a church and the space shuttle because it combines a spiritual mission with fancy technology.

It's the new kid on the block, even though it's been in the same place for 67 years.

And it's one more sign that Montgomery County - resolutely suburban and within an hour's drive from two great cities - rapidly is becoming a force in the arts world.

The official opening last week of the sparkling new 429-seat performing space at the Olney Theatre Center embraces all of these seeming dichotomies. The selection of The Miracle Worker as the play to open the $8.5 million venue hints at more contradictions still.

"The arts are not partisan, never should be partisan, even during difficult fiscal times," Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said at Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. To prove the point, the state's top official, a Republican, shared the podium with his wife, Kendel, and former first lady Frances Hughes Glendening, a Democrat and chairwoman of Olney's board.

The theater center is one of several impressive new arts complexes that have expanded or been created afresh in recent years, from the Music Center at Strathmore (the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's second performing home) in Bethesda, to the AFI Silver, the new 20-screen theater in Silver Spring.

The exterior of Olney's new performing space has a simple Shaker design that blends seamlessly with the existing rustic buildings; indeed, it's difficult to tell where the old space leaves off and the new one begins.

Inside, it's even better. Seats are cushioned on both the bottom and the back, no seat has an obstructed view or is farther than 60 feet from the actors, and the state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems should enable patrons to hear and see everything that occurs on the modified thrust stage, which is partially surrounded on three sides by the audience.

It is vastly more audience-friendly than the former main performing hall, which resembled a giant coffin, and occasionally felt like one. The original performing space - now dubbed "The Historic Main- stage" - will continue to be used for musicals, which tend to be more spectacle-driven than such intimate pieces as The Miracle Worker.

So far, so good. But beginnings should be a declaration of sorts. They should signal renewed vigor, the potential for bold and exciting choices.

Couldn't artistic director Jim Petosa have selected a play to inaugurate his new theater that was a bit more modern, a bit riskier than William Gibson's 48-year-old chestnut? Couldn't he have chosen something that looks forward, instead of back to the late 1880s (when The Miracle Worker is set) or even to 1992, when Olney performed it the first time with the same two lead actresses?

Give set designer James Kronzer credit for not taking the same old approach. He tries to design Helen's home as she would experience it, full of mysterious angles and surfaces, and devoid of color. It's a fine idea, but unfortunately, the symbolism doesn't work; Helen may be deprived of sight, but the audience is not.

Instead, we see a mishmash of period elements suggesting a wealthy Southern home (a marble floor and spindle-legged stool) juxtaposed with such cold, modern elements as a wide metal ramp. A jagged screen of wire mesh and glass slides back and forth across the stage and seems to suggest Helen's fragmented state of mind. But the screen's advances and retreats aren't obviously connected with shifts in Helen's perspective, or with her gradually expanding horizons.

Despite these caveats, The Miracle Worker contains powerful, affecting performances. Carolyn Pasquantonio might not physically resemble a bright and frustrated 7-year-old, despite her figure-obscuring smock and the tangle of bangs that hides part of her face. But she acts like one.

Pasquantonio keeps her center of gravity low, concentrating her weight in her hips and thighs. She is inescapably earthbound as she bangs and thumps and rolls around the stage, emitting guttural howls of rage or - infrequently - of delight.

As Annie, Marybeth Wise radiates a homespun, common- sense wisdom. But make no mistake: Annie has a temper. As Helen tests her again and again, Wise's face reddens, her shoulders hunch and her lips disappear.

The scene in which the woman and the child battle over the breakfast dishes is exhausting and surprisingly violent. Crockery flies all over the place.

Either Olney is using plastic, or we should all invest in china.

The Miracle Worker

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m., 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Tickets: $29 to $39

Call: 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org

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