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O'Reilly Theater: Patrons reflect on a quarter-century of theatrical accomplishment

Sunday, December 05, 1999

By John Hayes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Twenty-five years is a long time in theater. Long enough to understand what works and what doesn't, what will sell and what will bomb, what passes without a stir and what is so universally true it's seared forever into memory.

  Bearing witness: Nathlyn Diamondstone sits where she always did at the Hazlett Theater, seeing every Public Theater show since 1975. (Bob Donaldson - Post-Gazette

Longtime subscribers to the Pittsburgh Public Theater have a unique perspective on the company's quarter-century at the Hazlett Theater, one that doesn't show up regularly in newspaper reviews. As the Public moves into its new space at the O'Reilly, we offered some subscribers who have been with them for years the chance to offer their thoughts on the past and hopes for the future.

When a professional theater company in Pittsburgh was still wishful thinking on the part of Ben Shaktman, its first artistic director, Nathlyn Diamondstone was there, scribbling down the first list of subscribers for a company that didn't yet exist. Now 89 and living in Oakland, Diamondstone was one of the Public's original volunteers. She put herself on that first subscription list in seat 305. Seating arrangements at the Hazlett changed over the years and a new grid has been drawn up at the O'Reilly, but Diamondstone plans to watch the new theater's premier from seat 305.

"I was there in the beginning," she recalls. "Before we even had a theater, we had an office on the second floor of the Fulton Building -- one chair for Ben and one other for an assistant. I sat on the floor with so many sheets of paper, putting names of new subscribers in little blocks and [putting them] in a big black folder. Days after that there was a fire in the Fulton. They got all that material over to our next office in a Sixth Avenue loft, and [there] we got everything in order for the North Side. You know what the box office looks like? That's what our whole office was like. Even there I never had a seat to sit on. I used to lay on the floor and do it."

Diamondstone says she keeps in touch with Shaktman and has never missed a show in 25 years. She remembers the setting for the theater's first performance, "The Glass Menagerie" directed by Shaktman, and remains proud to have been a part of the company's first six seasons.

"Since then I've just loved all of the August Wilson stuff," she says, "and they do it so well with ... I don't know if the word is 'dignity'. They do newer plays every now and then and the only thing I object to is the language. ... All I hope is that [at the O'Reilly] they continue the wonderful programs they have and use directors who present them with good taste."

Ann Anthony, 75, a retired linguist from Allison Park and 23-year subscriber, might maintain the world's most complete archive of Pittsburgh Public Theater productions.

"I have all the playbills and all the tickets from all the shows," she says. "I cut out reviews and articles from the Post-Gazette, and I have a little routine. I cut out all the previews, but I never read them until after I've seen the show. Then I get home and read what they said. Then I cut out the review and put them all together."

Now that she and her husband are retired and planning to move, she's offered her collection to the Public Theater.

"The shows are still so very vivid in my mind," she says, "but I'll never forget one particular thing. During 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975), when the fellow grabs onto the nurse's uniform and pulls the front and leaves her practically bare breasted, the whole audience went, 'Ooooooh.' Nobody expected that."

Anthony says she's never cared much for Shakespeare or "musicals and fluffy things that are superficial." Her favorite shows include the company's first production of "The Glass Menagerie" (1975).

"Also Larry Kramer's 'The Normal Heart' (1987-88)," she says. "That was just about when AIDS was hitting society in a big way. You don't forget that kind of thing. And several by August Wilson. I think he is destined to be a playwright that nobody will ever forget."

"Cuckoo's Nest," directed by John Going in the company's first season, shows up, too, on Tasso Spanos' list. The myotherapist and intermittent subscriber from the South Side remembers the performance as "outstanding" and "electric," adding, "better than the movie."

The Public soared with a "beautiful performance of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1998-99)," he says, but is "off base" when it gets risqué in front of young people. "Sometimes for sexually explicit things, there shouldn't be [young] audiences," he says. "Do avant-garde stuff, but don't bring the kids."

Spanos hopes new artistic director Ted Pappas finds room for more hits from the '40s, '50s and '60s at the new space.

The West End's Dorothy Prey, 76, says the Public reached its highest summit with "K2," but she and her husband Charles stopped going to the Hazlett because of the long, steep climb up the wheelchair ramp.

She has fond memories, however, of earlier performances before accessibility for her husband became an issue.

" 'Tom Jones' (1982-83) I though was hilarious," she says. "It was a romp in the hay, literally. We were in the front row, sneezing with all the hay in our faces."

The 1995 season was particularly bad, says Mary E. Smith of Donora. In a single season, back to back, the Public did the 25-year subscriber's two least favorite plays.

" 'Sweeney Todd' I can't understand," she says. "I don't know why people like it. Those meat pies were made out of people. It's cannibalism. I thought the subject matter was repugnant and I didn't like it from then on. That was right after the Reduced Shakespeare Company on the Bible ['The Complete Word of God (Abridged)']. Let somebody who knows about the Bible write about it."

Smith remembers being "flung" by the Hazlett's original "slingshot" seating -- long single straps of canvas woven through each row that were given their nickname by unhappy customers.

"My husband and a friend were sitting on either side of me," she says, "and when they leaned back to talk, I was propelled right out."

Despite those problems it was the quality of the shows, she says, that kept drawing Smith back to the Hazlett. She has pleasant memories of "Over the Tavern" (1996-97), "Cuckoo's Nest," the first "Glass Menagerie," "Quilters" (1982-83) and "Sizwe Bansi Is Dead."

Squirrel Hill's Gretchen Schmertz Jacob, a 72-year-old folk singer and retired teacher of fine arts who once served as director of Pittsburgh Public Schools, believes many young people learned to appreciate the arts at the Hazlett.

"Not that [the Public] didn't do it before," she says, "but I hope at the new place they do more outreach, more discussions after the shows and things to get the kids into the theater."

Topping the 25-year subscriber's list of memorable shows are "Juno and the Paycock" (1981-82), "Quilters" (1982-83), "She Loves Me" (1986-87) and particularly "Arcadia" (1995-96).

"It was one of the most lyrical and beautiful shows I've ever seen," she says. "It was challenging to your mind and the language was very fine. So was 'As You Like It' (1994-95) with Leonard Nimoy. He had such a mastery of Shakespeare and of the language."

After staying with the Public for a quarter-century, Jacob says she has one bit of advice for the company as it begins its new era.

"I would encourage more original material," she says. "I know it's risky. [The Public] is fairly conservative -- OK, they're very conservative. But now that they've established a base and are moving into a new place, they can stretch a little."

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