Pimlico’s promise 

What Doubt says about local theater

A few things jump out as soon as you approach The Pimlico Group’s debut theatrical performance. The front window of 515 and the Crystal Theatre is neatly illuminated with the title of the show, Doubt. What serves as the lobby—the downstairs of the recently closed 515—is done up as if the restaurant still existed, with tables adorned with table clothes and votive candles, and multiple greeters welcoming guests. On the wall of the hallway leading back to the theater hangs enlarged press clippings about the show and a bio of the show’s producer/director/star, Seth Allman Bloom. And then, once inside the Crystal, Jason Blanchard’s lush and detailed set design, punctuated by original paintings from Polson artist AM Stockhill, warms the space unlike any other recent production.

Even before the performance begins, there’s a fresh sense of urgency and hospitality from the company. The Pimlico Group has made a point of making a good first impression, and that says a lot about Missoula’s latest theatrical upstart.

But there was another telling observation before the show: empty seats. Despite months of preparation, a blitz of paid advertisements across local media and a good amount of positive pre-show press, I was one of nine people—in a theater that seats approximately 100—to watch the company’s first Friday night performance. That, too, says a lot about Missoula’s newest theatrical upstart.

Or, more specifically, about Missoula theater. But more on that in a second.

It wouldn’t be fair to Pimlico to not first applaud an impressive coming out party. The entire production—from those initial cosmetic touches to the cast’s calculating execution of an award-winning script—is top-shelf.

John Patrick Shanley’s 2005 Pultizer- and Tony-winning play basks in innuendo, just scuffing the surface of abuse within the Catholic Church. Set in the Bronx circa 1964, Sister Aloysius (denise rose; her call on the lowercase) suspects the progressive Father Flynn (Bloom) of improper relations with the Catholic school’s first and only black student. Impressionable Sister James (Mara Lynn Luther) finds herself, much like the audience, between them, trying to decipher who is right. An arresting cameo by the young boy’s mother (Sarina Hart) only adds more delicious confusion.

The performances help the production fly by in just over 90 minutes. Rose stews as the parochial principal, an imposing bulldozer of policy, order and general distrust. She holds a ruler throughout much of the play, just as you’d expect and fear.

Luther is engaging on the opposite end of the spectrum. At first, she beams angelic optimism, wanting only the best for her school and students. The pain at being stuck in the middle of a power struggle bigger than just one priest and principal wears on her face the longer the play goes on. Hart’s one scene may be the highlight of the play. And Bloom, while too stiff during scenes where he’s supposed to be mentoring and befriending his eager students, brings a measured intensity to the debates opposite rose. All together, it’s a pleasure to see this cast of outsiders—Hart has appeared with the Whitefish Theatre Company; and rose and Luther in Bitterroot productions—on a Missoula stage.

But here’s the question: Will enough Missoulians bother to see this production for any of it to matter?

New theater companies in Missoula are a tough sell. It’s an uphill climb that’s alternately defeated big-vision companies after only one show (The Mercury Theatre’s 1984, in 2006); allowed big-budget attempts to seemingly succeed and then disappear (K-Mo Production’s Sight Unseen and Reefer Madness, also in 2006); or obliged smaller-scale student outfits to humbly roll along (When in Rome Productions, now entering its third season).

Even the best contemporary theater has had its hiccups. The Candidatos, who took the town by storm with their innovative 2005 fringe festival debut, struggled after their 2006 follow-up—a crushingly long and downbeat drama—and soon left Missoula to pursue other options. And Montana Rep Missoula (MRM), the established purveyor of edgy offerings, has occasionally labored to maintain momentum despite Greg Johnson’s steady hand; the company hasn’t fully captured local audiences, for instance, since Johnson teamed with playwright Barret O’Brien to produce original, site-specific work in 2005 and 2006.

Pimlico arrives somewhere near where K-Mo left off. There’s nothing abjectly different about Doubt—nothing as you-gotta-see-this buzz-worthy as absurdist clowns or a play staged in a converted downtown bar—but it remains as brave and noteworthy as anything else that’s hit the stage this year. Bloom’s company, albeit with more gusto and green than bold innovation, is at least attempting to poke the establishment, at least intending to mix things up. Who else has even tried in the last two years?

For that alone they deserve more than nine people in attendance. On Friday, I overhead two women lament the $15 ticket price before the show even started, questioning whether they should have gone to a movie instead. That’s scary. Consider the more expensive ticket a small investment toward the future, and one anybody interested in local theater should make. I’d much rather encourage artists to strive for wowing audiences with live theater, and trust that the next Big Thing will soon emerge, than settle for what local contemporary theater could otherwise soon become—an afterthought to the multiplex.

Doubt continues at the Crystal Theatre Tue.–Sat., thru May 24, at 8 PM, with Sat. matinees at 2 PM. $15.

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