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Port City Playhouse Looks Back on 25 Years

Alexandria’s small community theater company reaches a milestone this month with the celebration of its 25th anniversary and the start of a new season, which will see them moving into a new performance space.

Port City Playhouse (PCP) is a not-for-profit group that has presented plays that have rarely, if ever, been produced by community theaters in the region. It has earned recognition, awards and devoted audiences. Just this summer it walked away with the Ruby Griffith Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Play for the year, from among 33 entries from theaters in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.

The production that earned that award was the Tennessee Williams one-act play “Suddenly Last Summer,” which was performed together with his less frequently performed “Portrait of a Madonna.” It was not the first time that PCP had won that award. In fact, it was the second time in just the last three years. Its production of Jean Paul Sartre’s exploration of the nature of hell, “No Exit,” won the award in 2000.

The Alliance for Community Theatre (ACT) has also singled out work at PCP for awards over the years.

No fewer than 15 ACT awards or nominations have recognized quality at PCP over the past half-decade. Among the actors recognized by the Alliance has been Bruce Rauscher, who starred in “No Exit,” as well as Dave Citron, who had a supporting role in that play. Other performers recognized by ACT included Don Neal and Adrienne Shaw (“The Value of Names,” 2000), Eugenia Sorgnit (“Grace & Glorie,” 2000), Victor Yeager (“Kiss of the Spider Woman,” 1999), Joe Schubert (“The Woman in Black,” 1998), Sarah Holt and Chuck Dluhy (“Durang, Durang,” 1998) and Linda High (“Redwood Curtain,” 1998).

Actors haven’t been the only ones earning recognition for work at Port City. Director Gloria Dugan was cited for her work on 1998’s “Death and the Maiden,” and Beverly Benda’s costumes for Arthur Miller’s rarely performed “Creation of the World and Other Business” were noted in the 2001 round of awards, as was Lisa Crank’s sound design for “Grace & Glorie.” Ricki Kushner, who has since moved to Texas, where she and her husband Marty continue to be involved in community theater, was cited for her sound design, along with Les Zidel’s lighting design for the 1998 production of Lanford Wilson’s “Redwood Curtain.” The fact that both were recognized seemed particularly appropriate, for the tone of the evening was set from the very start with a green, splotchy lighting effect establishing the scene as a forest, while the sound of a helicopter was heard in the distance.

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, PCP has performed in the constricted space of the Career Center Theater, an amphitheater-like classroom at T.C. Williams High School. The playing surface is a platform without wing space on the sides or fly space above. This has been a great challenge for the designers, but it also is a very intimate space with the front row of the audience only about two feet from the stage. In such a space, actors know they must come through with their best work, for anything less is very clear to the audience.

A key feature of the success of the company during its stint at T. C. Williams has been the play selection. Again and again it has come up with plays that the best talents in local community theater want to work on.

From an exploration of the economic facts of life in a free market (“Other People’s Money”) to Brian Friel’s examination of the value of sight and insight, the intellectual content of the plays has been as important as the dramatic values. PCP produced George Bernard Shaw’s play of ideas masquerading as a comic melodrama set in revolutionary New Hampshire (“The Devils’ Disciple”) and then did Hugh Whitemore’s “Breaking the Code” – a story about Alan Turing, who, as a cryptologist, broke the Nazi military code, but as a homosexual broke a different kind of code in post-World War II Britain. Last season it even tackled Steve Martin’s comedy that pits Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in a debate in a small Parisian café called the Lapin Agile.

PCP will be moving out of T.C. Williams’ Career Center Theater after performing one more play there. That last play will be Walter Kerr’s adaptation of Aristophanes’ story of a utopia somewhere between heaven and earth, “The Birds.” It will run Sept. 13–28. A special 25th season gala celebration will be held at the George Washington Masonic Memorial on Saturday, Sept. 14, from 5-7:30 p.m., with a special performance of “The Birds” following.

The rest of the 2002-03 season — including Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” and the comedy by Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz, “Wrong Turn at Lungfish” — will be performed at the Nannie J. Lee Center on Jefferson Street.

For season subscriptions or single tickets, call 703-838-2880 or log on to www. portcityplayhouse.com.