In North Texas, there are “important” theaters with big budgets, medium-sized theaters aiming high, and little cutting edge companies that take chances. Almost all of these theaters are either in Dallas or Ft. Worth, and very little theater that takes place outside of these two cities registers on the radar (with some notable exceptions, such as Addison’s WaterTower Theatre and Irving’s Lyric Stage). Over the last four years, another suburban theater, Theatre Arlington, has quietly served up a number of exciting and challenging productions, showing that it deserves a place in the regional theatrical conversation. Its current production of Margaret Edson’s W;t is its latest salvo.
One would think that a theater with a 40 year history (making it the second oldest in Tarrant County) would not slip through the cracks, but such is the fate of a community theater. Over the years, the organization has had to keep its aged subscribers and the sometimes small-town mentality of its demographic entertained and not offended. However, things have progressed of late, and much of the credit for Theatre Arlington becoming a recent player in the region comes from outgoing executive producer Todd Hart’s brave vision and tireless efforts to surround himself with equally passionate artists.
In 2009, Hart challenged the board to start “choosing plays outside of their norm” and upping the quality of all its productions. They hired more full-time professional staff, made facility upgrades, reached out to actors and directors who had not worked at the theater before, and took chances with their programming. It paid off. Suddenly at Theatre Arlington you had incredibly talented, award-winning folks like Andy Baldwin, who has directed many excellent shows there, Elias Taylorson (acted in The Allergist’s Wife), Emily Scott Banks (directing W;t), and the much sought-after Bob Lavallee designing their sets. And Theatre Arlington was scheduling risky, artistic pieces like How I Learned to Drive, The Laramie Project, Rent, and W;t, alongside their more conventional musicals and routine crowd-pleasers.
This production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning W;t is definitely consistent with Theatre Arlington’s status as a theater on the rise. Banks, a fabulous, nuanced actor in her own right, directs Edson’s tale with a deft touch that brings out the play’s intended pathos and comedy with an impeccably suited brisk pace.
Vivian Bearing, Ph.D. (Krista Scott) is a university professor who specializes in the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, and she is dying of ovarian cancer. We hear all about the poking, prodding, and dehumanizing effects of the disease through Bearing’s unique, erudite, and funny voice.
Scott captures the professor’s appropriately precise diction that emphasizes the character’s “aggressive intellect” and dry sense of humor. “Brave” is an overused word in these types of gutty, revealing performances, but it is entirely appropriate here. The other notable performances come from Stormi Demerson, who portrays Nurse Susie with grace, and Jerry Downey, a cold clinical fellow and Bearing’s former student. Bob Lavallee’s set is an inspired semi-circular design that works beautifully with Bryan Stevenson’s lights.
It is an exciting time for Theatre Arlington, and the buzz about their positive direction is much-deserved. Unfortunately Todd Hart is on his way out. Let’s hope that the newly hired executive director, Norman Ussery from Winston Salem, NC, capitalizes on the momentum.