12 states, six weeks: Walnut Street Theatre's road warriors

The Walnut Street Theater "Red Hot Lovers" tour stops for a selfie in Sheetz, Pa.: (Left to right:) Stage manager Kelly Schwartz with actors Fran Prisco and Karen Peakes.

'I have to look out the window to remember where we are," says Karen Peakes. "Oh, wait, OK. . . . There's a pier, with fishing boats, lobster trucks picking stuff up. We're in New Bedford. Tonight, we're playing in . . . wait, I know this . . . Valhalla, N.Y."

Peakes plays Elaine and Bobbi . . . and Jeannette . . . in the Walnut Street Theatre's traveling production of Neil Simon's Last of the Red Hot Lovers, now on the last legs of a six-week tour. Philly used to be a town that regularly sent out road shows, up to New York, down to Washington, out to the hinterlands. In more recent years, that's been less frequent. But every year since 2011, with Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie, the Walnut sends a play out to hit the road, and Red Hot Lovers, starring Fran Pisco as the lover and Peakes as three prospective lovees, has been coursing the highways of this great land since Feb. 8. After a performance Sunday night in Flushing, N.Y., the show bolts cross-country for its last four dates, three in California and closing night in Albuquerque, N.M.

From all available reports, it has been a lot of fun, if not sleep.

"It's not so bad to get paid to tour all around the country," says Kelly Schwartz, the tour stage manager, from, yes, the road. She performs a crucial role: She drives the van. (That just begins her duties.) "I like the rush of it. It's pretty fantastic every day to be in a new place performing for a different crowd. There's always an unknown to every performance."

Peakes calls Schwartz "a Viking warrior princess. She gets behind the wheel, gets into the zone, and she gets it done." Schwartz, who has been on all but one of the Walnut touring shows, is also the fixer, "the person who, if something has gone wrong and someone's upset about it, I have the task of calming them down and assuring them it will go right next time. My Midwestern positivity really has helped over the years."

The first night turned into an epic road-burner. Just as Red Hot Lovers was scheduled to get to New England for the first shows, so was winter storm Niko. "So we left early to beat the storm," says Peakes. "We left Philly around 10:45 at night and drove straight through to 4."

"I thought the actors would sleep," Schwartz says, "but they stayed awake all night, to keep me entertained."

The show must go on, and on it went in the middle of the storm, before a bustling crowd of "between 60 and 80" at the 1,435-seat Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine in Orono. "They were great," Peakes said. "Afterward, we went down the street to a nearby place and hung out with the locals."

"A van full of actors: That's how I made my living in Australia and Canada," says Bernard Havard, president and producing artistic director of the Walnut Theatre. "I've been involved in touring theater most of my life."

Havard describes how the Walnut does it each year. "Working with a booking agent who has a good sense of the market, we choose a show that fits in the smaller upstairs Independence Studio. It has a run there and goes on the road. And the set is made in such a way that it can expand into a larger space, because you'll be playing all sizes of venue, some as large as 2,000 seating."

Overseeing the design of that set is the job of Joel Markus, production manager. "We've built it to fit into a truck," he says. "We've carefully planned how it will fit every venue, and how it will come apart after every performance." Tour technical director Valerie Bannan travels with the show and oversees the packing and unpacking, lighting, and sound. "Our contract says we need a crew of eight - often college students, since we're playing at several colleges - to help with unloading and loading," Marcus says.

For the West Coast, a separate company has designed replicas of much of the set, so the original doesn't have to be shipped out. Special suitcases full of stage works, Markus says, "have been designed to go through TSA at the airport with the actors."

"Thank God we enjoy each other's company," says Peakes. "It's a small group, so it becomes a close-knit family pretty quickly."

That's not always the case for traveling theater troupes, says Havard: "In the old days, you had smokers and nonsmokers, one actor who wanted to play golf and another who always wanted to sleep. The van would be going down the road and the nonsmoker would have his head out the window, trying to breathe."

Simon's farce concerns a bachelor who entertains three different women. Peakes has to play all three (done by Paula Prentiss, Sally Kellerman, and Renée Taylor in the 1972 film), shaking off the much-broken sleep of the van-napping road warrior. "Each act is like a complete play for me," she says. "When we started, I was a sweaty mess by the end, but my body learned it, so now it knows how to marshal its energy. "

Her spouse, actor Ian Merrill Peakes (son of the late actor John Peakes), told her "it's like you have an opening and a closing every night." "Each place is so different," she says. "Early on, I told myself: 'This is the way it's going to be. We have to find the show every night, keep it fresh for each audience.' "

Over hill, down dale, 22 performances, 12 states of the union, many more states of mind and body . . . all for the acting life. You could do worse. "It's refreshing to have a play that makes you laugh every night," Schwartz says.

"Very often, I'll wake up from a nap with no idea of where I am," Peakes says. "During the day, as we're driving to the next place, I just like to see all these places I've never been, and imagine what life is like for the people there."

jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane