B y late 1964, Yale graduate students Jon Jory and Harlan Kleiman realized they shared an uncommon aspiration: to start a theater. In a 1966 article for Smith Alumnae Quarterly, the late New Haven arts scene powerhouse Elizabeth “Betty” Kubler recounted naysayers expressing doubt and discouragement to the pair, scoffing at the idea of a new stage trying to succeed mere minutes from the Shubert and Yale’s dramatic institutions, and just hours from New York’s titanic theater scene.
Jory and Kleiman forged ahead anyway, enlisting the help of formative folks like Kubler, together creating what the SAQ article identified as “the 28th resident professional theatre in the United States:” the Long Wharf Theatre.
Now in the middle of its fiftieth season, Long Wharf is stage-readier than ever: its home at 222 Sargent Drive underwent a renovation to the tune of about $4 million in 2012, getting a revamped exterior, lobby, bathrooms and, most importantly, main stage area, now named for Claire Tow, a devoted member of the LWT family and key fundraising figure during the renovation.
Jory and Kleiman had to scrap and scramble to lay a foundation for that kind of devotion back in 1965, before LWT was a proven concept. As Kubler’s article characterizes it, the “spiel” the two of them spun to win over early supporters promised “good plays well produced… at modest prices.” She recounts their ambitions, evinced early in the planning stages, to make theater accessible to children, students and “the underprivileged or handicapped.” Talkbacks where the audience could speak directly to the cast and the director were envisioned. A newsletter was proposed.
More fundamentally, however, Jory and Kleiman needed a facility. After numerous dead ends, an unrented stretch of warehouse in the Long Wharf district emerged as a “temporary” solution, working well enough to become a permanent home, now crossing the five-decade mark.
On July 4, 1965, a capacity crowd settled into nearly 450 secondhand seats, salvaged from an old movie house in New Jersey, to experience the first performance of Long Wharf’s first production: Arthur Miller’s tragedy The Crucible (pictured upper left). In 1967, Arvin Brown signed on as artistic director, in a role he would relish for the next 30 years. Brown presided over Long Wharf’s first play to get brought up to the big leagues in New York (A Place Without Doors, starring Broadway veteran Mildred Dunnock, in 1970) and what the theater’s resident historians consider its first big hit: The Changing Room by David Storey, in 1972 (pictured center). Set in the locker room of a British rugby team, that play also went to Broadway, and its star, a then-unknown John Lithgow, went with it, earning Best Actor Tony and Drama Desk Awards and shooting his career into the stratosphere.
Over the years, many LWT productions have transferred to Broadway or off-Broadway, including The Shadow Box in 1976 and The Gin Game the following year. Others, some 35 or so, include All My Sons; Love Letters; I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; and The Glass Menagerie. Increasingly known in Broadway circles, in 1979 Arvin Brown and Edgar Rosenblum, Long Wharf’s longtime theater manager, accepted that year’s Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre on behalf of LWT. And Lithgow—who, like many others, would return to perform in something else—is but one of a long list of top-tier actors who’ve performed at 222 Sargent Drive: Jessica Tandy (and her actor husband Hume Cronyn), Nathan Lane (pictured lower left), Stockard Channing, Richard Dreyfuss, Al Pacino, Frances McDormand (pictured upper right), Kelsey Grammar (and his Frasier costar David Hyde Pierce), Joanne Woodward, Kevin Spacey, Anna Deavere Smith, Sam Waterston, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Peter Gallagher, Brian Dennehy, Kathleen Turner and numerous other luminaries of stage and screen.
In 1997, after three decades spent guiding the theater to “seven Tony Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and dozens of world premieres,” as the LWT website counts them—as well as strong season subscriber numbers, particularly throughout the 1980s—Arvin Brown would pass the artistic director’s torch to Doug Hughes. In short order, Hughes would preside over a third Pulitzer, this time for Wit by Margaret Edson, which premiered that November. A more locally significant accomplishment during his tenure was the large community project The Good Person of New Haven in 2000, with New Haveners comprising more than two-thirds of the cast.
In 2002, Gordon Edelstein, who’d been the associate director under Hughes, stepped into the lead artistic role he still inhabits today, meaning he’s been the preeminent creative guiding force at LWT for just about 25% of its existence. With managing director Joshua Borenstein, who handles the financial and administrative ends of LWT, Edelstein helped preside over the grand renovations of the theater in 2012 that delivered, among other things, comfier seats and a state-of-the-art lighting rig replete with a higher ceiling to accommodate it.
Following an undertaking of the magnitude and pressure of that $4 million project, celebrating the 50th anniversary’s got to feel a bit leisurely, like a victory lap. According to marketing and communications director Steve Scarpa, “honoring our past and celebrating our bright future” is the ticket this season. Speaking of the future, Borenstein hopes the 50th anniversary provides a platform that helps “grow the audiences of tomorrow through our education programs” and “increase our investment in the artists of tomorrow.” Initiatives underway include partnering with the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to provide free matinee performances for schoolchildren; developing plays through grants intended to encourage innovative writing; and sponsoring community talks that dovetail with the season’s productions.
As for the essential core of Long Wharf’s programming—its plays—this season offers a classic and a comedy before getting to newer, more boat-rocking works. The first offering, now concluded, was an inspired version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938). Up next is comedian Steve Martin’s take on an imagined collision of ideas between Picasso and Einstein in Picasso at the Lapin Agile (1993), playing November 26-December 21. The new year welcomes Dael Orlandersmith’s personal and revealing solo show Forever (2014). Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews is a biting, combative comedy about identity and familial conflict starting a run in February. brownsville song (b-side for tray), a relatively new work by Kimber Lee (2013), focuses on a kid with a bright future whose life is violently snuffed out, playing March 25-April 19. In May, Joe DiPietro will introduce audiences to his world-premiere offering The Second Mrs. Wilson, in which Edith Wilson assumes command of the nation as her husband Woodrow lies gravely ill. For an exclamation point, next June, the versatile, gifted, six-time Tony Award-winning, two-time Grammy Award-winning Audra McDonald will wow the crowd at a gala celebration.
It’s the Long Wharf Theatre’s 50th anniversary season, and these folks aren’t playing around.
Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
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Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photography courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.