By David Cannon
When “Sleuth” opens at Olney Theater Center for the Arts later this month, it will seem a typical mystery/thriller show for a typical Olney season. But it is much more than that. This production of “Sleuth” will mark the final show directed by Jim Petosa before he leaves Olney as full time Artistic Director.
I recently had a chance to talk to Mr. Petosa at the Olney Ale House (he readily admits this gathering place is one of many things he will miss about Olney) and I asked him if there was a particular reason for selecting “Sleuth” as his final show at Olney. Petosa noted Olney has had success in the past few years with the Agatha Christie style mysteries and thrillers and he wanted to do a play that has not been done in the area for a while.
Petosa also directed this show several years ago in Boston and admitted at first that he thought “OK, this again,” but when he started working with the play realized there is “more to the play than it first appears … it’s more complicated.” The director called the play “almost Pinter-esque” and added that one of the final things the great British playwright was working on before his death was a screenplay adaptation of this script. Pinter, of all people, knew good source material.
In addition, “Sleuth” is a good acting show that requires a small cast, which works well with Petosa’s busy schedule. Petosa has been very busy this past decade. In addition to Olney, he has been the director of the Boston University School of Theatre since 2002, where he teaches courses in graduate directing, performance skills in opera, and Literary Theory and Criticism. He was recently named Artistic Director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, Massachusetts, about ten minutes driving time from the University.
How does he juggle all these demands? “A lot of phone calls, a lot of computer time, and a lot of traveling.” In fact, the day after commencement up in Boston, Petosa came down to Olney to start directing the cast for “Sleuth,” although there were preliminary discussions via phone and computer on the various design aspects of the show.
Still, the University recently gave Petosa what he called “a very generous” contract renewal and he felt that “if the University made that much of a commitment to me,” he needed to do the same. Olney is in much better shape than it was when the recession first hit (“with the new business model, Olney has run in the black the last two seasons”) and he has been doing this commute for ten years now, so it was time. Petosa announced his resignation as Artistic Director last September to give himself and Olney plenty of time to find a replacement and make the transition.
Petosa has had a long and productive career at Olney. He joined the theater when the National Players came on board in 1985. From 1989 to 1993, he was a co-producing director and became full time artistic director in 1993, nearly 20 years ago.
As such, he was part of a group of people who helped shake up what was a fairly sleepy Washington DC theater/arts scene in the late 1980’s and helped transform it into the far more vibrant scene we experience today - in those days there were few small theaters like Woolly Mammoth, no Strathmore, and no Fringe Festival. In fact, except for Olney and a few other venues, everyone pretty much packed up during the summer. Now the Washington Post can fill its entire Sunday Style section with a “Summer Arts Guide” like it did a few weeks ago.
It is also hard to remember what Olney was like when Petosa first arrived. “We had the historic main stage and the actor’s house and that was it.” Since then, Olney has added a new main stage, an innovative theater lab, and an outdoor theater for summer Shakespeare productions. The season at Olney was originally typical for summer stock – light comedies, mysteries, and musicals. Petosa’s first main stage show was David Hare’s “The Secret Rapture,” a production Petosa remembers fondly and definitely something different from Olney’s usual offerings, and more than a hint of things to come.
But the real breakthrough in many ways was a charming backstage comedy – Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.” That show proved so popular that Olney brought it back after the main season. “We had been running pretty much Memorial Day through Labor Day. [With the revival of “Noises Off,”] we pushed into early November.” With that, the expansion of Olney’s season, and its facilities, was underway.
There was a “Winter of Adventure” Petosa recalls in 1992-1993 where Olney first mounted off season shows. That mini-season included the world premiere of Mart Crowley’s “For Reasons that Remain Unclear” (written “years before anyone heard of the priest sex scandals,” Petosa noted) and the area premiere of Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen.” Petosa proudly adds that with two exceptions, Olney has mounted the area premiere of all of Margulies’ works. One of those works was “Brooklyn Boy” which was extended several times and ran for over two months at the Theater Lab.
He also brought in the Potomac Theater Project (PTP) as a summer group in residence, whose politically and socially motivated plays were another change in pace from usual summer fare. PTP is still going strong, though now based in New York – go to http://ptpnyc.org/ to see their current offerings. Petosa’s contribution this year is a revival of Neal Bell’s “Monster,” a fascinating rethinking of the Frankenstein story that Petosa mounted at Olney years ago.
His most complicated show at Olney was probably “M Butterfly” which had nearly three dozen set pieces that had to move together “like a Chinese puzzle box – it had to look effortless when it was done.” There was also the large scale rethinking of the usually intimate musical “Jacques Brel” that earned Petosa his Helen Hayes Award. With shows like these, and a mini-Ibsen festival one year, Petosa certainly challenged audience expectations at Olney. The one show he was most nervous about was “Therese Racquin,” an adaptation of Emile Zola’s gritty novel of adultery and murder (think an early French predecessor to “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”). It was a provocative show, but the reaction was very positive, even among older audience members.
Along the way, Petosa was able to bring down several interesting shows from Boston to Olney, including a rare performance of Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor.” He was also nurtured the careers of several Olney regular actors, including Christopher Lane, Helen Hedman, Valerie Lenard, and Jeffrey Thiess (Thiess will appear in this upcoming production of “Sleuth”). “Olney was a place to celebrate the full theater art form, and gave actors the chance to explore that art form.”
“Sleuth” runs at Olney Theater from June 13 through July 8. For more information, call (301) 924-3400 or go online to http://www.olneytheatre.org.