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The Baltimore Sun

In her 17 years as Center Stage's artistic director, Irene Lewis' forte has been delivering the unexpected. It's no coincidence that the motto for Baltimore's largest regional theater is "Smart. Bold. Alive."

So it's more than a little surprising that Center Stage is opening its 45th season this month with Arsenic and Old Lace -- a 1939 farce that is a fre quent staple of high school drama clubs. The play is about two sweet, spinster sisters who have concocted a recipe for homemade elderberry wine that literally is a killer.

If Lewis is the director, though, it's a sure bet the show won't descend into whimsy. Those who know Lewis like to tease that she could find a dark side to Pollyanna.

The director, who is in her mid-60s, divides her time between New York and Baltimore. She is married to Mitchell Kurtz, who owns an ar chitectural firm.

IN HER OWN WORDS --I've never done a wild, zany comedy before. When we were selecting the shows for this year, I said it seemed kind of lightish, and Gavin Witt, our dramaturg, said, "Irene, there isn't a comedy in the entire season."

But before I could commit to a play like this, I had to know who I was going to cast as the two sisters. We checked to see if Pamela Payton-Wright [who has won Obie and Drama Desk awards] and Tana Hicken [a powerhouse performer at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre] were available.

They each said that if the other one would do it, they'd sign on, too.

DE-SUGARING ARSENIC --I've never seen it before, so I have no idea how it's normally done, but you can make this play as dark or as light as you want. Remember, there are two sets of serial killers on stage. When you start to look at the play, you realize how well-written it is, and how complex the characters are. There's a character who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, and another who is a sociopath. But you can't overburden it with interpretation, or the play loses its loft.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER --We rehearse for five weeks. During the first week, we do basic blocking [deciding where the actors will move, and when].

In the second, third and fourth weeks, we work line by line, finding layers of meaning. The first time we go through the entire play, I'm basically dictating, but as we go on, the actors have more input and start raising more questions. They start to know the characters better than I do.

In the fifth week, we move to the theater, where we run technical rehearsals. [In these final rehearsals, the actor's movements are coordinated with light and sound cues, special effects and scene changes.]

Finally, we're in previews. It's so important to run through a show before a live audience. Before the previews, we frequently don't even know where the laughs are. We continue to fine-tune based on how the preview audiences respond up until opening night.

BUT, WHEN DOES SHE DO LAUNDRY? --We rehearse six days a week. Monday is the cast's only day off, though I work on Mondays, too.

In the beginning, I'm working 14-hour days. I do between two and three hours of homework before rehearsal. On weekday mornings I also catch up on my work at Center Stage, reading copy, looking over ads, casting other shows, that sort of thing.

We rehearse from noon to 9:30 p.m. and break for 90 minutes for dinner. Then, each night, I review what we did during the day.

After the second week, I go down to 10-hour days. That practically feels like a vacation. Then, during [technical rehearsals], it's back up to 12 hours again.

IS IT WORTH IT? --Much of my "reality" takes place in the rehearsal room. For me, it is the one place that the truly unexpected amounts of joy, danger, enlightenment and deep questioning can occur.

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