In 1982 michael horne and Palmer Wells opened Theatre in the Square in the former banquet hall of the old Marietta Depot restaurant. IBM employees by day, they soon realized why the word “depot” was part of the name. The C&S locomotives would rumble down the tracks bordering downtown Marietta so often, they probably could have qualified for membership in the actors’ union. The train noise would sometimes distract from a comedic or tender moment, but I always remember the times when the thundering roars would embellish a scene of high tension, as if the elements were lending a soundtrack.
This year Theatre in the Square finally ran out of steam. The 2008 economic slump dramatically reduced contributions to the company, leading to huge debts, unpaid rent, and difficulty even meeting staff payroll. On March 19 its board voted to shut down.
Pearl Cleage’s “Flyin’ West” unexpectedly became the final production of the small suburban company that maintained impressive standards for three decades. In my years as a theater critic, I saw more than ninety productions at the Marietta playhouse, from Bill Murphey playing about forty roles in the one-man comedy “Fully Committed” to Jessica Phelps West burning Suzi Bass’s hands with a hot plate in the harrowing “Beauty Queen of Leenane.” In fact, it was Theatre in the Square that sparked my interest in the stage.
As a film buff in high school in 1983, I noticed that the mystery “Sleuth” was playing in Marietta, and I was curious to see a live version of such a smart, twisty movie. After years of being dragged to theaters, “Sleuth” was the first play I ever saw on my own. It was a revelation to see the action from the front row of an eighty-five-seat playhouse. And while big theaters like the Alliance or the Fox resembled museums or palaces, Theatre in the Square felt more like visiting somebody’s home.
At the time, Wells and Horne were learning by doing. “We had no strategic plan,” says Wells. “We scheduled our first season so a show would close on Sunday and the next would open the following Thursday night, so we’d have to build the sets in the space in the meantime. Sometimes we’d work on a set all night, then get up and go to work at IBM in the morning.”
In 1985 the pair moved the theater to a larger (but no less train-proof) space on nearby Whitlock Avenue. Theatre in the Square built a loyal audience, programming crowd-pleasers while also showcasing provocative but accessible new work. Unquestionably the company’s signature style belonged to sunny comedies with Southern twangs, and even its tamest and most commercial scripts drew energy from the Atlanta area’s funniest actors.
Theatre in the Square’s audience couldn’t get enough of “Smoke on the Mountain,” in which the hapless Sanders Family Singers perform an accident-prone show at a depression-era Baptist church. I saw it three times. “Smoke on the Mountain” may be the opposite of edgy, but Theatre in the Square’s renditions were so warm and well-acted, they gave “wholesome” a good name. The playhouse staged hundreds of productions of “Smoke” and its sequels, “Sanders Family Christmas” and “Mount Pleasant Homecoming,” using the same actors so often they felt like a real family.
Theatre in the Square might still be open if it had produced nothing but Sanders-style shows. But the company was never content to rely on the incessantly staged chestnuts that fill seats at the average community theater. Though never avant-garde by the standards of, say, 7 Stages in Little Five Points, at least once a season Theatre in the Square pushed the limits of what a Cobb County audience could expect.
In 1993 the company’s production of Terrence McNally’s “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” became a sideshow to a long-running national argument over public arts funding. The Cobb County Commission, objecting to the play’s gay themes, voted to withdraw its financial support for all arts. Given that the show takes place at a gay man’s Fire Island beach house over the Fourth of July, but features only straight characters onstage, the production seemed more like the excuse for the funding brawl rather than its cause. The international publicity led to a spike in donations, including one from Paul Newman. Still, the fallout was dire. “We lost 1,000 subscribers and really felt the impact the next season,” says Wells.
Horne died in 1996, but the company’s quality never flagged. At its peak, Theatre in the Square staged twelve productions a year on both the 225-seat main stage and the edgier 123-seat Alley Stage.
In the 1990s, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” echoed the Cobb County controversy through a dramatization of the courtroom prosecution of the witty writer. “The Lynching of Leo Frank” explored a grim footnote in local history with the notorious murder of a Jewish businessman accused of killing young Mary Phagan.
In 2006 the Alley Stage presented Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out,” a sharp comedy-drama about the uproar over an openly gay major league baseball player. By then the playhouse had become such a fixture that the community scarcely batted an eye at the play’s full-frontal shower scenes. While most of the Alley Stage’s shows had won acclaim in other cities, they seldom brought out younger audiences in the numbers the theater wanted. Despite Cobb County’s reputation as a conservative bastion, Theatre in the Square’s greatest audience challenge may have been generational. Like most suburban playhouses, Theatre in the Square relied on an aging contributor base. Frequently I felt like the youngest person in the audience.
Most small playhouses weather financial hardships, but I never thought I needed to worry about Theatre in the Square until last year, when the playhouse was one of three Atlanta companies—with Actor’s Express and Georgia Shakespeare—to hold save-our-theater fundraisers. The other two met their goals; Theatre in the Square fell short.
In recent years I discovered the fun of bringing my young daughter to clever children’s shows like “The Library Dragon” and “Cinderella Confidential.” I’m disappointed that I won’t get the chance to take her to see “Smoke on the Mountain” as a great example of cynicism-free entertainment in an ironic age. Maybe another company will mount a version of the show, but it won’t be the same. That train has left the station.
Illustration by Leslie Herman
Curt Holman is a longtime theater critic.