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Theater Review - 'V' for virtuous

Evaluating Susan V. Booth's five years in Atlanta

"Every time a play is produced, there must be a sense of 'event,'" Susan V. Booth told me five years ago, shortly after the Alliance Theatre named her artistic director. Booth's fifth anniversary as the creative leader of Atlanta's major theater company in itself qualifies as an "event." Booth came aboard after her predecessor, Kenny Leon, programmed the Alliance's 2001-2002 season, and with the 2006-'07 slate recently announced, the time is ripe to take stock of Booth's tenure so far.

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Booth came to the Alliance as the literary manager and director of new play development for the Goodman Theater, the oldest and largest resident theater in Chicago. Unquestionably, Booth has made good on her promise to develop and introduce fresh new writers, particularly through the Alliance's Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition. While neither of the two winning entries produced so far — Daphne Greaves' Cuban melodrama Day of the Kings and Kenneth Lin's ...," said Said (see review on page 45) — proved to be flawless, they did boast ambition and scope.

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Booth has also staged new work of such local writers as Larry Larson, Sandra Deer and Janece Shaffer. Novelty, unfortunately, proved to be the only virtues of the world premiere comedy A Death in the House Next to Kathleen Turner's House in Long Island, and the mushy, ensemble-written examination of religious faith, Leap.

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As a freelance director before she was named artistic director, Booth helmed such crackling Alliance shows as How I Learned to Drive and Spinning Into Butter, but none of the plays she has directed as a staffer have been so engrossing. That may primarily reflect the playhouse's overall choice of material. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the Alliance has gone soft — the abortion drama St. Ruby's Eyes and the racially charged musical Jelly's Last Jam, to name two, tackled challenging subject matter head-on. But most of the provocative shows have been period pieces and insulated from present-day controversy. Next year's Glengarry Glen Ross promises fireworks, but at more than 20 years old, David Mamet's cutthroat classic is turning into a profane nostalgia show.

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At a time of tight finances for theaters, the Alliance has partnered with other national playhouses for some of its biggest productions. Such shows as Savion Glover's Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk and the first production of Broadway-bound musical The Color Purple more than live up to Booth's definition of "event." But the Alliance cannot claim "ownership" of such productions the way it can for Jelly's Last Jam, directed by associate artistic director Kent Gash.

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New musicals dominate the upcoming season, including the tour-launching Broadway hit The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee and world premieres of the barbershop-themed Cuttin' Up and Sister Act: The Musical, an adaptation of the Whoopi Goldberg big-screen comedy. The latter, frankly, fills me with terror, no matter how many lively gospel numbers it may feature. With the exception of the silly whodunit Shear Madness, however, Booth's Alliance has staged crowd-pleasers without shameless pandering.

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The irony is that under Booth, the shows that seem like the most personal, idiosyncratic choices have been some of the coldest, like Gash's production of the Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures, or such period comedies as The Game of Love and Chance, The Guardsman and Jon Jory's new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Like the world premiere of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, all were impeccable, jewel-box productions that managed to be at once achingly lovely and emotionally remote.

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Feelings flared up in such superb plays as Gash's award-winning direction of Topdog/Underdog, Jelly's Last Jam, the scorching revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf, Booth's own Proof and the corporate satire Below the Belt. Though it often seems as though the head rules the heart at Booth's Alliance, you can still see passions at play.

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Standing ovation

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I don't remember much about my first visit to the Academy Theatre in the early 1970s, only that the first play I ever saw involved witches spelling out words to cast "spells" on each other. But I'm one of many, many Atlantans whose theatrical sensibility was influenced by Academy founder and artistic director Frank Wittow, who died April 11 at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the age of 75 due to undisclosed causes.

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Using the phrase "father of Atlanta theater" sounds like journalistic hyperbole, but it's difficult to think of a more appropriate description for Wittow. In 1956 he founded the Academy Theatre (first called the Southeastern Academy of Theatre and Music), which taught and shaped the careers of virtually an entire generation of local theater artists: Kenny Leon, Carol Mitchell-Leon, Horizon Theatre artistic directors Lisa and Jeff Adler, Theatre Gael founder John Stephens, Jewish Theatre of the South artistic director Mira Hirsch, and more. Naming artists whom Wittow didn't teach or somehow boost might be quicker.

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Lorenne Fey, the Academy Theatre's managing director, says Wittow had been in the process of retiring before his death, and that the company plans to hire an artistic team to replace him. The Academy will host a memorial service for Wittow at 7 p.m. on May 1 — a Monday — so working actors and artists will be able to attend.

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Off Script is an occasional column on the Atlanta theater scene.