Professional Theater Company Finds Home

Professional Theater Company Finds Home

First production in new home is fabulous ‘True West.’

The word "homecoming" resonates in so many ways with the run of the Keegan Theatre's production of Sam Shepard's play "True West," which opened a one-month run this weekend at The Old Town Theater on King Street.

The play portrays a sort of homecoming of an errant family member — a drifter with a streak of larceny, who returns to his mother's home only to find she's off on a trip and his brother is using the house as a place away from his own home to work on a project. All the old sibling rivalries bubble to the surface.

There are more homecomings going on, however, than the one Shepard wrote about. This is the homecoming of the production itself, following its one-month tour of Ireland as this year's continuation of the Keegan Theatre's tradition of touring the Emerald Isle each fall.

What is more, this is the Keegan Theatre's first production in this, their new home, as they assume the title of professional theater company in residence at The Old Town Theater. The production kicks off a four-show season that will see the works of Arthur Miller, Warren Light and Irish playwright J.M. Synge produced here in the months ahead.

The Keegan Theater began in 1996 when Mark Rhea, Eric Lucas, Donald B. Wright and Sheri S. Herren formed the company as a professional production company in Northern Virginia. They rented the Church Street Theatre in Washington for their first production, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," because they believed they'd only get the attention of the entire Washington theater community if they opened up downtown. They soon came back across the river and began staging solid productions of serious pieces, gathering critical approval for much of their work.

IN 1997, it was Brian Friel's "Translations" that was the first Keegan Theatre production to be reviewed by this newspaper. We called it a "quality presentation" and have found most of their productions since then to meet that standard. The theater professionals in the region agreed. Rhea was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Director of a Play, the first of four nominations the company has earned.

Today, after performing in church basements, old warehouses and school auditoriums, Keegan has found a permanent home in a real theater. The Old Town was the first permanent theater constructed in Alexandria. Its building permit dates to 1914, and its early years saw both silent movies and vaudeville before becoming exclusively a motion picture theater in the 1940s. It operated under the name “The Richmond,” but in 1980 it became “The Old Town.” Now it hosts both film and live theater, and Keegan has become the professional theater in residence.

This first production, Sam Shepard's dark comedy, features two of the company's founding members, Mark Rhea and Eric Lucas, in the key roles of the brothers, whose rivalries escalate to real combat. Some productions of the play have emphasized the darker, menacing side of the script, but that only highlights some of the problems of the second act, such as unlikely turns in the plot and contrived situations.

DIRECTOR SUSAN MARIE RHEA takes this production down a different road. She emphasizes the comic content of the script, using the abundant humor in Shepard's text to deflect attention from those problems. It works in part because of the richness of Shepard's writing and in part because of the marvelous performances of Rhea and Lucas, who, having worked together for so many years, know how to help each other get the most out of a scene.

The result is both very funny and highly dramatic. The fight is no Three Stooges routine of synchronized slaps and pokes. Instead, it is a knock-down, drag-out battle. Indeed, in the play's Broadway debut, audiences weren't sure if one or the other brother lived through the combat. The text has been rewritten a bit since then to clarify the ending, and there's certainly no ambiguity in how director Rhea brings events to a head.

This first offering of professional-level theater at The Old Town by its new company in residence is cause for celebration. Keegan continues the tradition we noted seven years ago of presenting a "quality presentation."