This post was supposed to be an appreciation, but a sad announcement today has turned it into a memorial. My Facebook feed is abuzz with members of our community mourning the demise of the Pearl Theatre Company. I’m dipping into the nytheater indie archive to celebrate some of what was great about this excellent NYC institution.
Under the leadership of Shepard Sobel, who founded the company in 1984 and served as its artistic director until 2009, the Pearl produced a slate of 4 or 5 revivals every season, featuring a regular company of actors. Shep’s wife, Joanne Camp, was part of that terrific ensemble, but the Pearl wasn’t ever just a showcase for the couple: they nurtured and encouraged the talents of artists young and old–many of whom were still with the company during this past (final) season.
I used to tell people that if I were a civilian I would have subscribed to the Pearl. I am thankful to them because much of my grounding in classic drama comes from the shows I saw there: from some of the less-well-known plays of Ibsen (this and this and this) to renditions of the Greek dramas (this and this and this and this and this) to–most delightfully–splendid revivals of Restoration Comedy (this and this and this and this and this and this), the Pearl gave its audience, year in and year out, clear-eyed and articulate productions of immortal theater works of every stripe.
Vivid memories from more than a dozen years’ of reviewing the Pearl include:
- Austin Pendleton’s staging of Tennessee Williams’ rarely seen Vieux Carre (2009), featuring indelible performances by George Morfogen and longtime company member Carol Schultz, among others.
- Robert Hock’s delicious turn as The Miser (1998), about which I revealed, in the first sentence of my review: “The final curtain call at the Pearl Theatre Company’s delightful production of The Miser is reserved for a small, unassuming cash box.” (Such surprising impish touches were not uncommon at the Pearl!)
- Dan Daily’s creepy, charismatic, weirdly charming Richard III (2000), not to mention his (quoting myself) “exuberantly eccentric” Inspector Rough in Angel Street (1999).
- Shep Sobel’s remarkable Hamlet (2007), with Sean McNall inhabiting the title role; I wrote: “we can see this young man slowly transform into the authentic hero that Horatio always knew he could be, and it’s thrilling to watch.” I’ll tell you here something I couldn’t write in the review because it would have been spoiler: the unforgettable climax of the duel scene came when T.J. Edwards as Claudius started to sneak off the stage. That struck me as so absolutely right, and I’d never seen it before. I loved this show.
Perhaps the quintessential Pearl offering back then was their Cherry Orchard (2001). I wrote: “This Cherry Orchard holds up that mirror to nature that Hamlet talked about: the play is the play of life itself, neither more nor less–but up close where we can see it.” I remember Joanne Camp, who played Ranevskaya, telling me the secret of this production’s success: that because the Pearl acting company knew each other so well, and trusted each other so much, that they were a kind of family, and thus could inhabit this family seamlessly.
I fear we will not see a company like the Pearl again in Manhattan. They carried the torch of classic theater with real valor–and after Shep and Joanne left, and they moved out of their longtime home on St. Marks Place, the company valiantly re-invented itself in a new venue with a revised mission. Farewell, Pearl, you will be missed.