THE PHRASE "jewel box" is overused to the point of cliché, but there is absolutely no other way to describe the 134-seat hidden treasure where the Cape May Stage folks serve up their brand of stagecraft.
Located in a 110-year-old building that was a church before being converted into the town's Welcome Center (and then into a theater), Cape May Stage's home may be the biggest surprise the historic burg has to offer.
"When people come from Philadelphia, for example . . . they are always amazed at the comfortable seats, the air conditioning, even the [Italian] marble in the bathrooms," said Roy Steinberg, who is currently in his fifth season as Cape May Stage's producing artistic director.
This is no mere summer-stock company, dutifully offering vacationers tried-and-true versions of perennial favorites.
First of all, explained Steinberg, the stage's cozy dimensions make it impossible to conjure such warm-weather staples as "The Music Man" or "Annie." And while Steinberg and his minions admittedly play it safe for the tourists with what he called "boulevard comedies" (like the backstage farce "Lend Me A Tenor," which runs through July 26), it's before and after the summer when things get interesting.
"In May, and also in [the fall], we do plays that have more 'stuff' behind them," offered Steinberg, whose impressive resumé includes directing a slew of dramatic productions in New York and elsewhere, as well as such popular daytime dramas as "The Guiding Light," "One Life to Live" and "Days of our Lives."
"For example," he continued, "we just did a world premiere of a play called 'How To Make A Rope Swing.' And right after ['Tenor'], we have another funny play called 'Boeing, Boeing,' but then we start doing more serious work, like 'Freud's Last Session,' which is about [Sigmund] Freud talking to [novelist] C.S. Lewis about God and sex and death. It's funny, but it has some intellectual aspects as well."
Also on the fall docket are "A Walk In the Woods," a 25-year-old Cold War drama (chosen to help celebrate Cape May Stage's 25th anniversary) that Steinberg said still resonates today, thanks to places like North Korea and Syria, and "Happy Days," an experimental piece from Samuel Beckett (Steinberg says that he is regularly telling people not to expect to see Henry Winkler).
Under Steinberg's stewardship, Cape May Stage has regularly hosted big name performers. For instance, Lynn Cohen, a veteran actress whose credits include playing Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the Steven Spielberg docu-drama, "Munich," starred in "How To Make A Rope Swing." And on Monday, the husband-and-wife team of Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry (both of whom starred on the hit 1980s legal drama, "L.A. Law"), will present a series of readings of new one-act plays.
So what's the lure for actors who can pretty much find work anywhere they choose?
"It's a combination of things," said Steinberg. "Cape May is so beautiful. People want to be in a beautiful resort. And I've been around for a while, so some of these people [like Cohen, Tucker and Eikenberry] are friends.
"And, quite frankly, the actors are protected. They know we have the best sets, we have costumes from Broadway, a state-of the-art lighting system."
Cape May Stage, 31 Perry St., 609-770-8311, capemaystage.com.
'Barry' is back
That sound you heard earlier this week was the local theater community celebrating the resurrection of the annual Barrymore Awards recognizing excellence in regional theater.
Last year, the Theater Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the body that conducted 14 years of nominating and balloting, called it quits. But the newly formed Theater Philadelphia is planning to get the program back on track. A Fall 2014 target date has been set for the festivities that will survey the upcoming 2013-14 season.
The revived awards competition will have something of a new look, thanks to revised nominating and voting guidelines.
The Barrymores, of course, are named for the famed Philadelphia-based family whose members a century ago included John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, and which today includes Drew Barrymore (John's granddaughter).
And how cool would it be if they got Drew to host the ceremony? Just a thought . . .