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Actors share stage, traditions in St. Vincent's 'Bench in the Sun'

| Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The "Odd Couple"/"Grumpy Old Men" dynamic is alive and well in St. Vincent Theatre's first summer show "A Bench in the Sun," opening May 28.

In the show, longtime friends Burt and Harold live in a retirement home and spend their days comically bickering while sitting on a bench in the garden.

"One is grouchy and sloppy, and the other is well-dressed and confident," director Joe Reilly says. "They argue. Then a new resident, a retired movie star, moves in. She's full of ideas about ways to improve the home. The men start to compete for her attention and affection."

"That's when life gets interesting, when the lady shows up," says actor Greg Thornton, who plays Harold. "There's quite a battle."

Reilly, the resident director at the theatre since 1970 and a film and theater professor at the college since 1974, says he loves that this play is about people, their flaws and the way they interact.

"I love the richness of their lives, how they keep fighting and don't surrender," he says. "It's life."

Reilly's vision for the show was simple -- to get good actors.

"It sounds obvious," he says. "But your job as a director is to find good actors and get out of their way, let them do what they have to do."

For this show, those actors are Thornton, Jeff Howell, who plays Burt, and Pat Reilly, the director's wife, who plays Adrienne, the character that spices things up.

Thornton graduated from St. Vincent College in the early 1970s. For the past two decades, he's performed with the Alabama Shakespeare Festival and has performed more than 70 professional roles, including starring turns in "Cyrano de Bergerac" and "Macbeth."

Howell is a regular at the theater. Last summer, he played 17 characters in "Around the World in 80 Days." Frequent St. Vincent theatregoers might remember Howell as the flamboyant waiter in "Be My Baby," a show in which he played 10 roles last summer.

"Everyone wanted me to serve them at the cabaret after the show," he says.

Howell teaches at Point Park University and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and has appeared in films such as "Sudden Death," "The Cemetery Club," "Dark Half" and "The Bride in Black," and roles on TV's "All My Children" and "The Young and the Restless."

Pat Reilly was a founding member of the theater and holds the longest tenure of anyone in the company. She often performs onstage and works behind the scenes.

She and Joe raised their children in the theater and even married on a Tuesday -- 39 years ago -- as to not interrupt the theater's summer schedule.

As exemplified in the Reillys' tenure and Thornton and Howell's roots with the college, St. Vincent Theatre is steeped in tradition.

It might seem odd that the shows start at 10 minutes after the hour, but there's a reason according to the director.

"It goes back to the days when we were an all-male institution," he says. "The female presence was a joint-effort with Seton Hill, and the bus would get here on the hour. So any activities we hosted started at ten after.

"Our people are so used to 8:10 or 2:10 that I didn't want to move away from it."

Thornton says he loves the tradition as well. He and Pat Reilly performed their first show together, "The Music Man." Now he's back, working with her and Howell, whom he'd never met before.

"It's an interesting dynamic to read with someone you've known for a long time and someone you've never met before," he says.

But rehearsals are going well, and he says he looks forward to sharing what he calls a great play with the audience.

"Any great play will reflect human beings," Thornton says. "There's something they see in themselves or something they don't want to see at all. There's a really funny, sensitive element as you watch these two men who have a long history and have known each other since they were boys.

"It's not heavy and serious, but there's an element to it I find interesting that isn't just about laughs. It's much more human."

Additional Information:

'A Bench in the Sun'

Presented by: St. Vincent Theatre

When: 8:10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, June 2-6, 9-13 and 16-20; 2:10 p.m. June 3 and 7

Admission: $10 Thursday; $18 Tuesday-Thursdays, $21 Friday and Saturdays, and $15 for matinees

Where: Carey Performing Arts Center, St. Vincent College, near Latrobe

Details: 724-537-8900

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