By Larry Laneer
September 25, 2021
Much has been made lately—and deservedly so—about the retirement after 24 years of Donald Jordan as founding artistic director of Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre. So, this would be a good time to look back at highlights and memorable moments from the company’s almost quarter century.
Jordan has probably wanted to wring my neck a few times, but to me, Oklahoma City Rep has provided some of our most delightful and challenging theatrical experiences.
Jordan would surely be the first to say Oklahoma City Rep is not just about him. He would insist on recognition of hundreds of performers, directors, designers, stagehands, stage managers, conductors, musicians, board members, supporters, and theatergoers for the company’s success. Those parties would likely say it was Jordan who led (or schlepped) the mob along and kept the company going. It’s remarkable for any operation to last 24 years. Now, let’s see how memory serves.
Depending on how you count, Oklahoma City Rep has presented about 86 productions, but some of those were fundraising concerts or shows by other companies, such as Reduced Shakespeare Co. and Second City. I’ve seen at least 72 of their productions, so this compilation is based on those viewings.
Oklahoma City Rep has never been known for producing new, original work. But they’re not completely lacking in this department. The company staged Ruth Charnay’s documentary play The Oklahoma City Project on the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing. They also undertook a big production in the musical Pryor Rendering, based on a coming-of-age novel about a young gay man in small-town Oklahoma in 2016.
But the company has done a solid job of presenting plays and musicals that were new to us. Moonlight and Magnolias (in 2007), about writing the Gone with the Wind screenplay. The musical tragedy Next to Normal (2011). The smart, compelling comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (2014). The highly popular A Doll’s House, Part 2 (2019). And the company’s grandest achievement so far, the first production by an Oklahoma theater company of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County (2010).
They also staged not-quite-so-new plays but still new to us. Red (2013), about painter Mark Rothko. The Mountaintop (2015), with W. Jerome Stevenson as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (2017). I still remember the eerie sound effect that could be either thunder or cannon fire; the ambiguity had to be intentional. The one-hander Every Brilliant Thing (2019), featuring a brilliant performance by Jon Haque.
Oklahoma City Rep has revived a variety of older plays, including Moliere and Shakespeare. Two of the most successful were Neil Simon works. Brighton Beach Memoirs (2005) is written for a proscenium stage and two-story set. When I heard they were doing it in CitySpace, I said impossible, can’t be done. Boy, was I wrong. The remarkable director Michael Jones, with Hal Smith’s lighting design, compacted the show into the intimate space, achieving a sense of claustrophobia contained in the play itself. Jones also staged Biloxi Blues (2011), which I think is Simon’s best play, in the same space to fine effect.
The company seasoned the mix with old plays. Again, Michael Jones staged Our Town (2007) in the Black Box Theatre at Oklahoma City University. In the cemetery scene, at Emily’s funeral, the audience viewed the action as if from the grave. At the time, I called it eerie and convincing theater. The highlight of The Glass Menagerie (2008) was seeing David Mays play Tom Wingfield. Even further back was a fine production of Noël Coward’s 1924 play Hay Fever (2009). Marsha Norman’s 1981 ‘night, Mother (2016) featured Pam Dougherty, a Dallas-based actress often employed by Oklahoma City Rep, and our own Kris Schinske in notably satisfying performances. The company came late to Avenue Q (2016). But this musical is on my list of shows I’d like to see about once every ten years.
Oklahoma City Rep often presented shows that were among the most produced plays in a given season. Some of them made theatergoers wonder why they were so popular: November (2012), Peter and the Starcatcher (2015), Heisenberg (2018). We can let the company plead temporary insanity for Zombie Prom (2009).
I’ve never seen anyone do the Tuna plays better than Jonathan Beck Reed and Donald Jordan. And I’ve seen the creators Jaston Williams and Joe Sears do them. I always dreaded the company reviving Greater Tuna and A Tuna Christmas, but the actual performances won me over every time.
Speaking of Reed, he starred in the musical Little Me (2005), playing seven characters in the style of Sid Caesar who created the role in this 1962 musical. Reed and Oklahoma City Rep have had a great run together.
The Laramie Project (2008) received a fresh, moving staging by director Robert Benedetti, haunting scenic and lighting design by Don Childs, and outstanding performances by the 15-actor cast.
The company staged the first Oklahoma production of Larry Kramer’s 1985 The Normal Heart in 2012. This play about the beginning of the AIDS crisis featured outstanding acting by a top-notch cast and fine direction by René Moreno.
One of my all-time favorites remains the one-hander The Santaland Diaries (2009), featuring Shawn Churchman. Written by David Sedaris and adapted for the stage by Joe Mantello, the play is a Christmas show for people who hate Christmas shows.
The main thing about Donald Jordan and Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre is how they have made a difference. They enriched our cultural lives through quality productions of worthy scripts. They have made the world—or, at least, Oklahoma City—a better place. We should all aspire to do the same.