For 50 years, the Kalita Humphreys Theater—one of the last completed works of Frank Lloyd Wright (who died 50 years ago this month)—has perched over Turtle Creek, anchoring the Dallas Theater Center in an area verging on upper-crust neighborhoods and the lunchtime din of Lemmon Avenue. It’s as if, removed from the city’s main thoroughfares, the theater has always spoken to the center from the wings.
All that will change this month, as the Humphreys stage plays host to the final full season of DTC productions. The building will still stand, but the company is moving its base to the new Wyly Theatre downtown. Soon all the city’s major performing arts will speak from the center. Our city’s neighborhoods, whose idiosyncrasies keep the whole interesting, survive by retaining arts bastions that are also peripheral. We mourn to lose them to downtown.
The occasion of the DTC’s departure, then, might seem to call for a final exit that plays like a eulogy or a sweeping retrospective akin to those produced at the Oscars. But that’s not Kevin Moriarty’s style. For his adieu to the company’s old home, the DTC’s artistic director has chosen a family musical, Sarah, Plain and Tall. Where’s the gravitas? Has Moriarty forgotten to pay his dues to the DTC’s 50th anniversary at the Humphreys?
Hardly. If some would opt for a more nostalgic piece, Moriarty has picked a work that involves both homesickness and the triumph of belonging. As part of his commitment to “surprise and delight the audience” with new works, Moriarty asked New York director Joe Calarco to bring the newly expanded production of Sarah, Plain and Tall to Dallas. I asked Calarco what makes this story salient to a contemporary public—after all, it involves a mail-order bride. For Calarco, Julia Jordan’s “beautiful, literate story and Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe’s stunning score and lyrics” focus on how Sarah brings music back to the Whitting family after the loss of their mother. “Really,” Calarco says, “this is about Sarah’s story of healing, about loss and how we deal with loss.”
Moriarty’s introduction to Dallas has also been a kind of healing, bridging the divide between the theater’s actors and its audience as the city is on the cusp of great change. Now that he has produced a successful season (garnering great reviews and increased ticket sales) and has also named nine actors to the company, that connectivity has begun to develop.
The post-performance conversations have also helped. Moriarty tries to attend as many as he can. Just how much he relishes those talks was clear earlier this year with In the Beginning. Actors and audience conversed during the performance itself. That tête-à-tête either piqued the audience’s interest or just plain piqued it. Moriarty’s “gotcha” moment suggested that to be part of the theater, what he dubs the “communal living room,” you’ve got to speak in it, too.
Not every chat has been unanimously appreciated. The Good Negro provoked tensions. Moriarty received a letter saying, “There are things we just don’t talk about in the South.” In the Beginning stirred a similar animus. People who’d avoided God-talk all their life didn’t want to be subjected to it in the theater. But despite some tetchy letters, Moriarty says he has received overwhelmingly positive responses from the audience. “Dallas audiences are more open and hungrier to experience new, relevant, and engaging things than people may give them credit for,” he says.
Now we await the October move into the Wyly with baited breath. There, Moriarty will definitely produce a Shakespeare piece and probably a couple of classic plays and musicals. He underscores the fundamentals: producing musicals, works for families, and cutting-edge drama. He also wants to continue engaging writers of new plays while commissioning playwrights to write for the Dallas Theater Center, and to keep building the acting company while reaching out to the best artists nationwide.
Meanwhile, the Humphreys will retain her spot. Named after a young actress who died in a plane crash, her namesake continues to stand as her parents’ homage to her. The theater, donated to the city of Dallas in 1974, will remain open for other productions and events, keeping its theatrical roots.
Ending the DTC’s season with Sarah, Plain and Tall, ultimately a story of homecoming, is a profoundly grounding last act to set in the Humphreys. It’s a story Dallas can take to heart as its main theater sets off for a new homestead of its own, bringing our city’s many areas with it to bear on the center.
Back Back Back runs through April 5 at the Dallas Theater Center. Sarah, Plain and Tall runs April 22 to May 24. 214-522-8499 or dallastheatercenter.org.
Write to Joan Arbery at [email protected].