The marquee sign that now identifies the building at 174 S. Howard as the Modern Theater looks very much like the one that identified it as Interplayers. Were you to pass under it without looking (and it's surprisingly easy to do), there's little to indicate outwardly that anything has changed following the troubled theater's merger with Lake City Playhouse in mid-September.
The photos of past performances along the staircase are untouched. Art — currently by the renowned figurative expressionist Mel McCuddin — still hangs for sale in the Gellhorn Gallery, which continues to commemorate the same arts patron. Many of the faces are familiar both onstage and off.
The only anomaly is that Executive Director George Green, who on opening nights is normally seen making the rounds through the foyer of the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene, is here making the rounds through this foyer, smiling, greeting, shaking hands. The visual context doesn't seem quite right, like running into your dentist at the supermarket. But as the lights go up and the actors step onto the thrust stage, just as they have done for countless performances before, the uncanny feeling quickly dissipates.
On this particular opening night, it's Damon Mentzer who emerges from the wings and lights an invisible cigarette before addressing the audience in a drawled soliloquy. He's playing Tom, the narrator and beleaguered son in Tennessee Williams' autobiographical "memory play," The Glass Menagerie, directed by Patrick Treadway. This play wasn't scheduled, but when Hound of the Baskervilles hit complications, Williams' classic was rapidly deployed.
Its stopgap nature notwithstanding, Treadway's production is downright stunning, with a particularly evocative performance by Marianne McLaughlin as Tom's mother, the imperious Southern matriarch who has plummeted from once-privileged heights. Her performance resonates all the more powerfully through its juxtaposition with Aubrey Davis as Laura. She plays Tom's lame and emotionally fragile sister as a figure to be understood rather than pitied. If, following the merger, one were to go looking for signs not of continuity but of rebirth, The Glass Menagerie will provide its fair share.
Green says the merger has gone "relatively smoothly" so far, thanks in large part to the assistance of Managing Director Hannah Paton. The Modern has seen "overwhelmingly positive support from the patrons" and nearby businesses. Actors outside the Inland Northwest have already begun calling about future shows and job opportunities, prompting the theater to partner with local businesses and a hotel to board out-of-town cast during production runs.
There is, however, still some confusion among those who aren't aware the merger has taken place, or resistance from those who aren't comfortable with the name change. "You just let that be," Green says. "It's a landmark. People need time to process, to be angry or to be sad."
The recurring question from theatergoers as well as the local acting community is what exact shape the Modern will take, particularly here in Spokane, and whether it will remain close to the vision that Bob and Joan Welch had when they founded Interplayers in 1981.
"I can't throw out a bunch of answers because they get perceived as promises," Green says. "We're evolving, we're planning. That's an active term. We have one goal, and that's to save a theater. And we're doing that." ♦
The Glass Menagerie • Through Nov. 22: Thu-Sat, 7:30 pm; Sun, 2 pm • $19-$25 • The Modern Theater Spokane (formerly Interplayers) • 174 S. Howard • themoderntheater.org • 455-7529