The End of the Beginning – ENSEMBLE CLOSES DOORS ON AN ERA WITH ‘FRANKIE AND JOHNNY’

Dee Ann Newkirkplays Frankieand RickGifford makes his Ensemble Theatre debut in the roleofJohnny. David Bazemore photos
Dee Ann Newkirkplays Frankieand RickGifford makes his Ensemble Theatre debut in the roleofJohnny.
David Bazemore photos

In 1987, director Saundra McClain was living in New York City in Manhattan Plaza, the “Miracle of 42nd Street,” the 45-floor artist housing complex. Across the street was a small theater where a two-person play, “Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune” opened. “I have no recollection of it. I just remember two people on stage.” (Those two people, by the way, were Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham). She’s not being glib, just a statement of fact and a life filled with playgoing.

And it helps to not remember anything particular when you wind up directing your own version, set to premiere Thursday at the Alhecama Theatre.

Terrence McNally’s play is a romantic comedy grounded in reality, where a short-order cook and a waitress fall into bed at first sight, then actually have to work to make a real relationship in the aftermath. Johnny, fresh from prison and eager to get back on his feet, is all for true love. Frankie, on the other hand, has been burned so many times before, she’s very wary of this new guy.

Ms. McClain has known Ensemble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Fox for many years, and directed for the company twice already: one play being “In the Continuum” and the other being “The Fantasticks.”

“I’m having a wonderful time with real furniture and real props,” Ms. McClain says. “And wonderful actors! Every time Jonathan would ask me to direct it would be a concept piece, but this just came up and I jumped at the opportunity.”

When Ms. McClain started directing in New York, she was working in children’s theater, learning to pare down classics for shorter attention spans.

“I’m very open to what my cast gives me,” she says. “I’m very fast and I do my homework. I’m thorough. I think it comes from working with children, and having worked in all media: musicals, Shakespeare, classics, contemporary, both as an actor and a director.”

Ms. McClain has cast Dee Ann Newkirk, last seen at Ensemble in “The Creditors,” and Rick Gifford, who is new to the company. “Both are extremely quick and we all feed off each other,” Ms. McClain says. “One of the things I like to do is black out all stage directions in the script, so it is like we are creating this play for the first time. We are finding all sorts of new things. We also live in an age where people move quickly. I don’t want talking heads. There’s an energy in the play that we’ve heightened.”

The play ends the season, but also ends Ensemble’s tenure at the Alhecama Theatre, where it’s resided since 1979. After this final show the company will move across town to the larger, remodeled New Vic, a transition that has been a long time coming. This last show will be poignant for all involved.

“I’m honored that I’m doing the last show, so I want it to be special,” Ms. McClain says. “This is a play about hope and I think that’s where the theater is as they go forward into a bigger space. I look forward to possibly directing there too!”

‘Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune’
When: Through June 3, 8 p.m. Tues.-Sat., 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.,
4 p.m. matinee June 15.
Where: Alhecama Theatre, 914 Santa Barbara Street
Cost: $40-$65
Information: 965-5400 or www.ensembletheatre.com

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