We asked Sharon Eberson, the former Arts & Entertainment editor and theater critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, to reflect on the reawakening of live in person theater with the opening of Quantum’s THE CURRENT WAR.
Check back later this weekend for Bob Hoover’s review of the production.
By Sharon Eberson
It would be easy to say I would not have missed this one for the world. But the truth is, I would have missed it, if not for two shots in the arm.
Credit goes to scientists, who share top billing with Quantum Theatre for the reawakening of Pittsburgh theater that is happening right now in Homewood’s Westinghouse Park.
News had arrived in May that Quantum would be going live with the new musical THE CURRENT WAR. It would not be on a screen but in person. And it wasn’t going to be in the fall, like Broadway shows or most reopenings. No, it would be curtain up — or in this case, tent flap up — on June 4.
Scenes of dark clouds dissipating and footlights aglow danced in my head.
I had received my second COVID-19 shot within days of the announcement and, although still feeling side effects of the blessed vaccine at work, I was overjoyed. Not only was I on my way to hugging vaccinated loved ones, but also to attending an honest-to-God, full-length show in an enclosed setting — my first since March 12, 2020.
On that night, Point Park University’s PIPPIN opened and closed at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Before the show and during intermission, I received word that the pandemic also had forced City Theatre to end its run of CRY IT OUT and Pittsburgh Public Theater’s AMERICAN SON would never reach its opening the next day. The Broadway Series run of THE BANDS VISIT, then playing the Benedum Center, would not complete its weeklong run.
En masse, ghost lights were lit in theaters all over the world.
I was still the theater critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette then, and I went from trying to figure out walks for my dog between day shifts and seeing up to five shows a week, to spending 24/7 with her, and only her.
Theater was hit particularly hard during the pandemic, even though artists tried new platforms to connect to their audiences. With apologies to the goddess Aretha Franklin, the meaning of “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” will never be the same again.
Quantum Theatre, like so many theaters in Western Pennsylvania, pulled up its bootstraps and gave us new entertainments, such as audio adventures in Schenley Park and onscreen presentations. The latter included Caryl Churchill’s FAR AWAY, a glimpse into a dystopian world that was definitely ready for prime time. It was an oasis from my TV viewing, but it was not what so many, including (or perhaps especially) theatermakers, have been craving for more than a year: in-person entertainment.
Admittedly, even now I am not ready to be among a crowd of, say, 135,000, like the one that showed up at Indianapolis Speedway last week. But I am over the moon about theater coming out of hibernation responsibly, and more than ready to abide by whatever restrictions science, theater-makers, and common sense dictate.
All those months of sacrificing togetherness to make it safely to this point were leading up to this initial step by Quantum. Founder and artistic director Karla Boos has for 30 years been going boldly into the unknown, producing “theater experiences in uncommon settings” throughout the city.
If any company is equipped to meet the challenges that coming out of COVID-19 has thrown at us, it’s the Quantum team.
THE CURRENT WAR is the first theater piece in the city to be launched as a regular-season run, June 4-27. Before opening night, though, I had already dipped my toe in the in-person waters by attending two one-and-done performances at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Open Air stage in Schenley Park: first Vanessa German’s HYPERSENSITIVE, a provocative, marathon piece with music, dance and #regularassblackgirl magic, presented by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, then an afternoon of Shakespeare Monologue & Scene Contest winners, presented by the Public.
Open Air recently received RAD funding through 2023, which is great news for the performing arts in Pittsburgh. This summer, it has served as a stepping stone for people wary of indoor gatherings but willing to give the outdoors a try.
Most theater companies with traditional brick-and-mortar homes are mirroring Broadway and planning returns throughout autumn. Well, Quantum isn’t most theater companies. With THE CURRENT WAR, it has given us an early sign of theatrical life, with the lure of a Pittsburgh story, some of the city’s finest performers, directed by Tome Cousin, with music direction by Douglas Levine, a set by Tony Ferrieri … simply irresistible.
I was so ready to take the in-person plunge, I immediately purchased seats for the opening night of the show by Fox Chapel’s Michael Mitnick, about the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse for control of the nation’s electricity.
The script previously had been transformed into a nonmusical movie, released in 2019 and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the troubled genius Edison and Michael Shannon as the effusive entrepreneur Westinghouse. Now Pittsburgh can boast the premiere of THE CURRENT WAR as a musical, which is how Mitnick wrote it initially.
Daniel Krell as Edison and Billy Mason as Westinghouse
If that isn’t enough of a draw, the who’s who of local talent has Daniel Krell as Edison and Billy Mason as Westinghouse, alongside Melessie Clark, Tru Verret-Fleming, Connor McCanlus, Jerreme Rodriguez, Quinn Patrick Shannon, and Drew Leigh Williams. The musical also reunites Cousin with Fleming and Mason from his triumphant 2017 production of THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS. If you are a fully vaccinated Pittsburgh theater-goer, THE CURRENT WAR should be able to clock you at zero-to-80 back to your usual seat.
That’s me saying “fully vaccinated,” by the way. That caveat may not be for everyone, but that’s my comfort zone, and on opening night, I was confident I would be around people who felt likewise.
On Friday, as I parked on McPherson Boulevard to enter Westinghouse Park, straight ahead was the glorious sight of a sprawling white tent and the familiar “Q” sign, heralding the theatrical event. How typical of Quantum to touch down in a site that represents characters in the show — the 10-acre park was previously occupied by the estate of George and Marguerite Westinghouse.
Patrons arrived knowing the rules of engagement. Upon purchase of tickets, we received an email with Actors Equity guidelines — the audience would be masked and seated in socially distanced pods. Before entering the tent, temperatures were taken, and we were checked in with questions about exposure to COVID. Inside, tiers of bleachers topped with chairs were pre-set for pods and marked with ticket-holders’ names.
In the hour or so before entry, theater-goers in folding chairs and on blankets had been enjoying a beautiful spring night while eating purchased picnic meals — Quantum is partnering with Homewood’s Showcase BBQ, continuing where it left off to support neighborhood businesses wherever it puts down stakes.
Inside the tent, noise from the nearby playground permeated the air, but the sound system and lighting inside quelled at least some of the distractions.
At one point, though, actor Krell as Edison said the words “flying machine,” just as the sound of a plane could clearly be heard.
It reminded me of another such Quantum moment, in 2008. It was in Mellon Park, during a performance of CYMBELINE. At the words “spark of nature” and other mentions of the heavens opening up, there were rumbles of thunder and distant lightning.
That memory flooding in and the, dare I say, the current situation gave me an inexplicably warm feeling. Actually, I was feeling pretty good throughout the performance. Although masked throughout the running time of nearly 100 minutes, with no intermission, my glasses didn’t fog up once.
After the applause, we were led out row by row, to maintain the promise of social distancing. However, people who had waited so long to be in a theater setting again were gathering outside and asking that now all-important question — “Are you fully vaccinated?” — then shaking hands and hugging.
I got in a few handshakes and hugs myself, and haven’t had my fill of that closeness, or of sharing in-person theatrical experiences.
If scientists were to study the crowd at Friday night’s performance, I would say they would come away with one indisputable fact: Absence does, indeed, make the heart grow fonder.
THE CURRENT WAR estimated run time is 100 minutes without intermission, and seating capacity is 84. The show is sold out for its run, but there is a wait list as events unfold. Due to demand, “a high-quality digital recording of the show” is being made available online for $20, June 12-27. On-demand tickets are for sale here.
Sharon Eberson is the former Arts & Entertainment editor and theater critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.