No, you don’t have to go to New York to see a great play. You can see one in hundreds of regional theaters around the country. I have seen many, and even performed in a few, at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, Georgia and now I have seen an incredibly good one in Albany, Georgia.
My first cousin, once removed, Ray Johnson – actually, Dr. Ray Johnson because he is a retired psychiatrist and every family needs at least one – invited me to come to Albany to see his wife Joy, a retired RN, in the Theatre Albany production of “Grace and Glorie.”
In my view, the production was Broadway quality. It was a two-woman show. Joy played Grace, a dying 90-year-old illiterate West Virginia farm woman, and Francie Michas played Gloria, a young, educated, urbane hospice worker. Their generational, cultural, philosophical, and psychological clashes made for not only serious thought, but laugh-out-loud humor.
Not only was the acting absorbing and, well, brilliant, but the set, the inside of a West Virgina farm cottage, was as professional as any I have seen. Stephen Felmet, a self-educated set designer and the only other paid staff member of Theatre Albany – the other one is Director Mark Costello – reminded me of movie and TV drama sets, because it had an incredible amount of detail. Since so many sets are symbolic, it was refreshing to see a good realistic one again.
As I was talking with Director Costello, who has been Theatre Albany’s Artistic/Managing Director for 25 years, during intermission, I pointed out to him that Theatre Albany is Albany’s “Springer” – he was gracious enough not to counter with the Springer is Columbus’ Theatre Albany – because both occupy historic buildings. There are also a number of other parallels.
While the Springer Opera House dates back to 1871, the Captain John C. Davis House, home of Theatre Albany, is even older, dating back to 1853. George Washington didn’t sleep there, but Confederate President Jefferson Davis did sit in a chair there, which is on display. A theater auditorium was added to the back of the house when Theatre Albany made the home its permanent residence in 1964.
I’ve been through Albany a number of times heading for Florida in recent years, but only stopped maybe for lunch, so this was the first time I really visited the city since the early 1960’s. As program manager for the late Jim Woodruff’s three radio stations in Columbus, Albany, and Bainbridge, I would visit Albany and Bainbridge a couple of times a month. The Albany station, WGPC, a CBS affiliate, was located in a small building in back of the New Albany Hotel, where I spent the night a few times.
Back when I was a child, my family would drive down to visit my Aunt Jewell and her family in Albany a few times a year. They lived just a few blocks away from the New Albany Hotel. After spending the night at the Johnson’s following the play, as I headed back to Columbus, I decided to check out the downtown area to see how much it has changed. As far as the buildings are concerned, not much. The New Albany looks as good as it did 50 years ago, but, like the Ralston in downtown Columbus, it is now a retirement hotel. What has changed is that, unlike the old days when on Saturdays cars and throngs of shoppers occupied downtown, there are almost no cars or people. It’s the same old story of retailers moving out to malls. Columbus is more active downtown now, with Columbus State University locating its music, art and drama schools downtown, and with the Springer Opera House and River Center’s three theaters attracting crowds. For instance, Jerry Seinfeld played at the River Center Thursday night to an almost sold-out crowd.
All in all, it was a great Albany visit. We had a fine time conversing about our families, the old times, the new times, theater, music (Ray said all McMichaels are musical, and he’s pretty close to being right), and, yes, even politics. What did we say about that? Well, all I can say is we were all on the same page.