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A new professional company adds more to the theater community than just its eclectic first season

For the past couple of years, tantalizing rumors had been circulating through the theater community. Two guys, fresh out of Yale, were on a mission to bring professional theater to Greensboro. Next thing we knew, Preston Lane and Richard Whittington had convinced Piedmont swells to put $5 million plus into gutting an old Montgomery Ward and putting a new theater company, and a new theater building, in a redeveloping district downtown.

Triad Stage went live in January, with a crazy quilt of an inaugural season. Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, and Lynn Nottage's African-American domestic drama, Crumbs from the Table of Joy, were substantial choices coming out of the gate. But connect these dots: Christopher Durang's not terribly sophisticated comedy Baby with the Bathwater, followed by Julie's Dance, an adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie, and finally Charles Ludlum's gender-bender penny dreadful, The Mystery of Irma Vep.

Now that's a segue. And given the country's recent economic reversals, a major new professional company is a rarity not only in North Carolina, but in the United States as a whole. So I took the drive last weekend: 40 minutes by Interstate 40 to the Lee Street exit, then a right on Elm and down five blocks.

It was worth the trip. They've pulled it off. This new company's accomplishments will definitely attract discerning regional theater-goers and the region's top actors looking for a professional venue in which to perform.

In muted yellows and blues, Triad Stage's lobby is far from ostentatious. But past those doors, a serious theater lurks. Dramatic lighting and shadows, dark burgundy walls, and 300 chairs with matching upholstery surround a generous thrust stage on three sides. Though it's really not that large a space, the cramped ambience of most black boxes is missing. Intelligently designed, close but not oppressive, tastefully lit and appointed, the room compares favorably with the best of our smaller regional stages.

Of course, the play's the thing.

Artistic director Preston Lane's adaptation of Miss Julie is an imaginative and risky affair. Strindberg's 1888 drama was a biting critique of 19th-century class society and gender roles in Sweden. The three-character play focuses on the ways a count's unstable daughter, Julie, manipulates his cook and his foot servant. Though the two servants are soon to be wed, Julie, recently jilted in love, flaunts her control and flirts with the foot servant, ordering him to dance and drink with her. It's a forced seduction based on a submerged mutual attraction, and repulsion.

As the alcohol flows, those feelings rise to the surface. The game is dangerous. If the two are found out, disaster will result. Yet their dance continues, around a flame that's capable of devouring both.

Lane moves this story to the North Carolina Piedmont--the location of his new theater--in the year 1922. Then he casts African-American actors Dyron and Jacqueline Holmes as John the foot servant and cook Christine. In Lane's adaptation, Astrid Santana plays a spoiled Southern rich girl, trifling with a black manservant who knows he'll be lynched if word of this little game gets out.

Suddenly Strindberg's European social criticisms hit a lot closer to home. It's a daring interpretation, for more reasons than these. Lane excises Strindberg's mid-play pageants, permanently grounding us in designer Alexander Dodge's exquisite marble-tiled kitchen. He also rewrites the ending.

These useful inquiries, though, are limited by characters who seem still in development. Though control is an obsession only to those who have already lost it, Santana and Lane just begin to get at Julie's underlying mania. Hurting from lost love, she knows just how self-destructive she's being. Selfishly, she forces John to walk the edge of ruin with her; if she's going to jump, she isn't going alone.

As matters develop, this hostage situation turns into a more elaborate game of chicken between the two, a shared deathwish born out of self-loathing and inbred hatred of the Other and the world. But Julie sometimes seems a moth too circumspect to risk the flame. It's not true brinksmanship if either of the characters has anywhere else they can possibly be besides the brink.

Even with a complex character still being thought through, the Southern world vividly painted on the Triad Stage is compelling. Dyron Holmes clearly knows the risks as John, and Jacqueline Holmes conveys the fatigue and the bedrock certitudes of John's intended, Christine. Stuart Dance and Robert Perry's thunderstorm is impressive, and an ambient musical quotation by Arvo Pärt seals the final moment.

Lane's sharp new vision of a world theater classic is already worth crossing county lines for. More attention to the enigma of the title character, though, could further sharpen it.

For more information about Triad Stage, call (336) 272-0160. EndBlock

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