Published in KPBS On Air Magazine February 1994
Edith Stein was born into an observant German Jewish family on Yom Kippur, 1891. On August 9, 1942, she died in a gas chamber at Auschwitz. Forty five years later, in August 1987, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (nee Edith Stein) was beatified by Pope John Paul II and proclaimed a martyr. The life of Stein made for hot inter-faith debate. It also served as potent theatrical fare for Guatemalan playwright Arthur Giron, who wrote the drama “Edith Stein”, which opens the 18th season of the Lamb’s Players Theatre (February 25-April 2).
“She really saw herself as an instrument of reconciliation between Jews and Christians,” says Lamb’s producing artistic director Robert Smyth. Jews, Nazis and nuns appear in the play, which was first produced at the Pittsburgh Public Theatre in 1988, breaking thirteen years of box office records. The piece later played at Washington’s Arena Stage and the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York. “It doesn’t take a perspective,” Smyth continues. “There is no clear hero.” Which is just as well. The controversy surrounding Stein’s beatification remains unresolved. Did Sister Teresa offer herself as a martyr following the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, or was she just a victim of her Jewish origins? Whatever the answer, the story of the Jewish teacher-philosopher-feminist who became a Carmelite nun is a fascinating one, especially for a theater company devoted to exploring the “integration of faith and art.” They seem to have particular simpatico with playwright Giron, currently head of the graduate playwriting program at Carnegie-Mellon, whose “Becoming Memories” opened the Lamb’s 1993 season.
“Thematically, he covers territory that we like,” says Smyth. “This is not a Jewish or a Christian play,” he adds, referring both to “Stein” and to “Beau Jest”, upcoming this summer (June 3-August 13). The James Sherman comedy concerns a Jewish girl afraid to bring her Gentile boyfriend home to meet the folks on Passover. The Lamb’s brochure advertising the new season’s offerings doesn’t mention the word Jewish in descriptions of either play. “Sometimes people read things and stereotype what they’re going to see,” Smyth explains. “We try to do a real smorgasbord every year. ” The new season will also include two small, lively musicals — “Pump Boys and Dinettes” (April 22-June 4) and “She Loves Me” (October 7-November 19)– and a world premiere adaptation of “Robinson Crusoe” (September 2-October 8), as well as the three traditional Christmas offerings.
Hopefully, the October production will inaugurate the Lamb’s new theater space, the historic Spreckels Building in Coronado, near the Hotel Del. “It’s a great space,” Smyth fairly crows. “I’m thankful nobody discovered it. It’s been lying dormant for almost 40 years.” Built in 1917 as an opera house/movie theater, the space will be reworked into a modified thrust stage with 340 seats, double the current National City seating capacity. It means giving up theater-in-the-round, the creative mainstay of Lamb’s productions since 1978. “I love the round, as a director and actor,” notes Smyth. “But it’s a little more confining for the technical staff.”
The Lamb’s Players will continue to produce shows at their home base as well as at the Lyceum in Horton Plaza, where they’ve mounted nine shows in the past four years. Eventually, they want to use the National City stage for a professional children’s theater (by adults, for kids).
Smyth is not worried about overextending his reach. “We’re at a point where we have to make this step,” he says. “Our theater’s too small, and we need a different locale. The press continues to give National City, undeservedly, a negative slant as a community. That’s hard to overcome. Our audience will support the move, and Coronado is supportive. We’re not overstepping our limits; this is natural growth. We won’t go into the red because we don’t deficit spend. When there’s trouble, we tighten our belts.” Several years back, the Lamb’s Players tightened their belts so much they almost suffocated. They dropped down to 10 staff members, each wearing more than the usual number of hats. Now they’re back to 22 staff, 16 of whom are performers. And they’re “in the black, but not in gravy.”
Overall, 1993 was their “best year ever,” although it saw a first-time dip in season subscriptions (the subscription base is 3800, with 300-400 new names every previous year). Audience demographics suggest a following that is “evenly spread throughout the county,” according to Smyth. “Some people have us pegged as a little South Bay theater, and we’re not… We purposely don’t operate under an Actors Equity union contract, because Equity presupposes an adversarial relationship between producer and performer. But our producers “are” our performers. All our shows include some ensemble members (part of their salary), but we pay close to Equity scale to outsiders… We started with the European model of an ensemble, versus the American model of a production company. I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand who we are, what we’re trying to do, or how we work.” With its presumably higher profile in Coronado, the Lamb’s Players should get to spread the word.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.