By Sharon Eberson
As Pittsburgh Public Theater announces its 47th season, I can’t help but look back in wonder of where we were 15 months ago, and how far we’ve come.
Before COVID-19 stopped the world, Pittsburgh Public Theater was having a great week.
The company was fresh off a highly successful run of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. With AMERICAN SON days away from a Friday the 13th opening, artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski and managing director Lou Castelli decked out the O’Reilly Theater lobby for a gathering where they revealed the Public’s 2020-21 season.
Among the shows announced that day, only August Wilson’s TWO TRAINS RUNNING and AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS will be seen in the weeks to come.
When audiences enter the O’Reilly once more, starting Oct. 20, it will be to cheer for THE CHIEF.
Something old is new again as writers Gene Collier and Rob Zellers have revised their portrayal of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney, a solo play that has proved to be among the Public’s most popular offerings. The show previously starred Pittsburgh native Tom Atkins, now 85, and I can’t wait to see who takes up the trademark Rooney cigar.
With COVID restrictions lifting incrementally, SLOW FOOD, the comedy that opens the season Oct. 5-17, will be an online-only offering, while the remaining shows are scheduled for the O’Reilly, the Public’s Downtown home. Also on the 2021-22 slate is the one-woman musical HOW THE HELL DID I GET HERE?, which launches a North American tour of the show.
As excitement mounts for in-person theater and season announcements from our region pour in, the Public’s announcement made me nostalgic for the fanfare of 2020.
It was that week that started with so much hope at the O’Reilly. Glasses of bubbly were raised in celebration and there was music — Douglas Levine at the keyboard and Drew Leigh Williams singing songs from “SHE LOVES ME,” which was scheduled to open the season that was not to be.
Justin Emeka was announced as a resident director (he still is), and there was a reading by Helena Ruoti, announced as an artist in residence and as Queen Elizabeth in the stage version of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, an offering which, like SHE LOVES ME, did not survive the long shutdown.
The casualties of the Public’s 2019-20 season were AMERICAN SON and BAREFOOT IN THE PARK. The play CAKE later became part of the Public’s innovative online series, PlayTIme.
Let’s pause to consider PlayTime, and how the Public quickly became a leader in filling the live theater void.
As the pandemic overtook our lives and livelihoods, the benefit reading series PlayTime was among the first to invite audiences to theater presentations on screens large and small. In my recollection, Pittsburgh Public Theater was the first company in our region to bring in a full cast to Zoom a full-length play, Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.
A week after the shutdown, the Public posted on Facebook:
“Although we cannot gather in person during these strange and unpredictable times, there are many ways we can still come together. Home is not always a place. Home is the people we love, the experiences we share, and the stories we use to connect us across time and space.
“While our physical theater is closed, all of us at Pittsburgh Public Theater want to invite you into our artistic home in a new way. … Join us online for PlayTime … a new online reading series, hosted live by Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski, that will bring great classic plays and the work of extraordinary Pittsburgh writers right to your living room, computer, or device. … Join Marya as she introduces the series and reads excerpts from Shakespeare’s classic tale of courage and imagination, HENRY V.
That was followed on March26-27 by EARNEST, and PlayTime just kept on going. The benefit reading series would evolve to add “Classics N’at” to its title. It endured through the presentation this month of the winner of its first New Play Contest, Emma Gibson’s WHEN WE FALL. PlayTime may have come to an end, but new works are still in the works at the Public: Mark Clayton Southers, the producing artistic director of Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, will join the company for a developmental commission of his work “The Coffin Maker.”
The choice for the Public’s post-shutdown fresh start is the 2019 comedy SLOW FOOD on Oct. 5. It will mark another first for the company in more than a year of firsts: The play will be performed and captured digitally in a Pittsburgh restaurant, to be served up online only. Then it’s all hail THE CHIEF, as the O’Reilly opens its doors to the theater-going public once more.
That’s 587 days from the final preview of AMERICAN SON and the last audience inside the O’Reilly. But who’s counting?
PITTSBURGH PUBLIC THEATRE 2021-22 SEASON
Oct. 5-17, 2021 — SLOW FOOD
A comedy by Wendy MacLeod, directed by Marya Sea Kaminski
A famished couple, on the road and celebrating their anniversary, walk into a charming Greek restaurant and encounter a highly neurotic waiter. Online only.
Oct. 20-Nov. 7, 2021 — THE CHIEF
By Rob Zellers & Gene Collier, directed by Kyle Haden
Pittsburgh Public Theater returns to the O’Reilly Theater for the first time since 2020 with a new production of the Art Rooney story, from his humble beginnings to the pursuit of that first Super Bowl ring.
Jan. 26-Feb. 13, 2022 — HOW THE HELL DID I GET HERE?
Book and Songs by Lesley Nicol & Mark Mueller, directed by Luke Kerneghan
Actor Lesley Nicol’s one-woman, autobiographical musical reveals how she overcame personal demons, found love, and achieved hard-won success on stage and screen.
April 13-May 1, 2022 — AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Adapted by Ken Ludwig, directed by Marya Sea Kaminski
The story by one of the world’s best-known mystery writers finds detective Hercule Poirot on board and on the case when a suspicious businessman unexpectedly turns up dead in his cabin.
June 1-19, 2022: TWO TRAINS RUNNING
By August Wilson, directed by Justin Emeka
It’s the Sixties in the playwright’s American Century Cycle — 1969, to be exact. The civil rights movement is ignited nationwide while in the Hill District, the city wants to raze a restaurant for an urban renewal project. The owner and his regulars fight to keep a sense of order and dignity and look to sage Aunt Ester for guidance.
Also in 2021-22: Second City returns to the O’Reilly in December for a WILD, WACKY WONDERFUL LIFE, in partnership with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
Individual tickets will be on sale this fall. Subscription holders will be contacted in August with further information about their respective subscription series. Visit PPT.ORG/AllAboard for more information.