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Stage West logs the miles in two spaces

Posted 7:42am on Saturday, Apr. 06, 2013

One of many signs that things are going well for your organization could be that there's so much activity, it's a task in itself just to keep it all in check. That's the realization Dana Schultes has about the current state of Stage West.

"We have so many schedules on the walls," she says. "I've never had a busier calendar. We finally had to put up two sets of calendars to get a good visual to see who's where, who's doing what and when."

Schultes, who was recently named a co-producing director of Stage West, along with longtime staffer Jim Covault, is directing the newest title on the group's current season, the 2012 Obie Award-winning 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog, which opens Saturday night.

That's about how many miles the Stage West staff might feel like they've jogged when this month is out, because this weekend another show opens in the theater's new Studio Theatre next to its main stage on West Vickery Boulevard: David Rintels' one-man play Clarence Darrow. Stage West founder Jerry Russell, recent "retiree" from the theater, plays the title character, the famous early 20th-century lawyer whose headline-making cases included the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and the Leopold and Loeb case.

So, for much of April, there will be something happening every night at the theater, as Miles runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday matinees, and Darrow picks up Sunday through Wednesday nights.

The 61-seat Studio Theatre will largely be used for extra classroom space, for the theater's occasional events like Storyteller Night and the New Play Readings Festival, and to produce two or three extra shows to supplement the regular season. It might also be opened up for rental space for other theaters.

It's a good thing that Stage West has its biggest staff in its 34-year history -- seven full-timers and about 20 part-timers, many of whom work in the Ol' Vic Café at the theater -- and its largest annual budget ever, at $850,000. When the group moved back in the Vickery space in 2007, the budget was about $450,000, which is about where the theater had been for many years.

Of course, as always, the focus is on quality theater, and on that front, in the past few years especially, Stage West has been consistently knocking it out of the park.

Expect no less with 4000 Miles, which was one of the most acclaimed shows in New York last season. The play deals with a young man, Leo, a bicyclist and new-school eco-friendly liberal, who returns to New York to stay with his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera, an old-school lefty. In between them, talked about but not seen, is Leo's mother, who's more to the right politically.

But politics is not the play's focus.

"It really focuses on their relationships. It's two outcasts from the fringes of society, but they're very different." Both have lived on the fringes of society, "but through two very different generational perspectives," Schultes says. The play explores "how they start to deal with the world around them, especially in a very life-changing period in both of their lives."

It's an unplanned yet interesting pairing with the politics of Clarence Darrow, which is a role Russell has played twice before, first in the mid-'80s and then in 2002.

It's a role he has wanted to come back to and feels closer to now for several reasons. Part of that is a closer connection to politics, as his daughter, Wendy Davis, is an outspoken Texas state senator. But it's also where he is in his own life.

"I'm sort of not there, but I'm certainly closer to the end of my creative life, so to tackle a role from the viewpoint of a man who's speaking to us at the end of his productive legal life, those things kind of coincide in an interesting way," Russell says.

He thinks Darrow's politics are increasingly relevant today, as we seem to be coming back to many of the arguments he fought for.

"For Darrow, it was so much about fair labor fights. The working conditions were horrific," Russell says. "In essence, the battles are the same. The same thing goes on when we see the rich get richer and the middle class falls lower. There are so many [younger] people who don't know Clarence Darrow, especially in this whole generation, but in terms of this nation, I have to put him in there with people like Lincoln and FDR and Obama. He's of that cloth. He's of that level of impact of where we are in this country today."

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