Everything old is new again. Take, for example, Pittsburgh Public Theater’s 2014-15 season, which celebrates four decades by opening with the production that started it all, Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”
“I wanted to find a way to honor the accomplishment of reaching 40 years, and what better way than to put on a play?” said current producing artistic director Ted Pappas. “Well, the play is eternally beautiful, and ‘The Glass Menagerie had a very successful revival in New York, we’ve never produced it in the O’Reilly. It’s the perfect way to acknowledge the past for those who are seeing it again, and it’s ready for a new generation.”
Forty years ago, the climate for top-notch professional theater in the city appeared to be changing, and to counteract their concern, three lovers of theater — Joan Apt, Margaret Rieck and Ben Shaktman — founded Pittsburgh Public Theater. That first season, which commenced in September 1975, also included Pittsburgh’s Tom Atkins in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — a year before the film version — and Leonard Nimoy as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night.”
With Pittsburghers embracing the programming mix of classics and premieres, the seasons quickly grew from three productions to the current six.
The Public claimed the North Side as its home back then, in a high-ceilinged space with a flexible thrust stage, The landmark building in Allegheny Square had been erected in 1889 and rescued from demolition in the 1960s, when the community renovated the theater space to include movable scaffold seating. It became the New Hazlett Theater in 1980, named for Theodore L. Hazlett, a civic leader and supporter of the arts.
The Public enjoyed 24 years in the building and brought the thrust-stage style with it when it moved to the brand-new O’Reilly Theater in December 1999. The venue was created just for the company on Penn Avenue in the heart of the Downtown Cultural District and opened with the world premiere of “King Hedley II” by Pittsburgh’s own Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, August Wilson.
Audiences followed the Public from the North Side to Downtown, as the company continued to revitalize classics by the like of Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare and champion works by contemporary writers. Two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance brought the much-ballyhooed “Twelfth Night” to Broadway last year — a production he first brought to the States and the Public stage a decade ago. The company also is known for producing new works, including the pre-Broadway run of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn’s “By Jeeves” and the upcoming “L’Hotel,” a world premiere by Ed Dixon.
In the mean time, season No. 39 is still under way. Next up, a work that combines several themes that have emerged over the past 40 years. The play “An Iliad” is a modern retelling of Homer’s tale from Ancient Greece. It’s the Trojan War with Achilles, Hector, Agammemnon and Helen of Troy, all rolled into a solo tour-de-force.