OK, It's New. But Does It Work?

There had been ground-breaking ceremonies and dedication ceremonies. The site, the building, even that funky double-helix sign, had sequentially been unveiled. The press has been shown the space. The public had been invited into the auditorium for a series of forums and panel discussions.

But finally, last Friday, we were all able to see the new Wilma Theater, designed by Hugh Hardy, put to the use for which it had been designed: as a working theater.

And the good news is: it's wonderful.

In the Wilma's old space on Sansom Street, the designers would try their damnedest to make the tiny space look as large as they could. With Arcadia, the reverse is true: David P. Gordon's set sits well forward of the theater's proscenium arch, so audiences still have little idea about how deep the stage goes; even the misty view of the gardens out the window is placed well forward of the back wall of the stage.

It's as though Jiri Zizka wanted to reassure us that, as in the Wilma's old space, we wouldn't feel far away from the action. As before, the actors stand inches beyond the toes of the audience members in the first row. The slope of the auditorium is such that, from my seat in the sixth row, virtually dead center in the house, not a head or shoulder blocked my view. And yet, unlike, say, the Harold Prince Theater at the Annenberg Center, I didn't feel as though I were peering down into a pit, watching a cockfight below. We all felt close to the stage, yet uncramped.

There was, moreover, a sense of space, of volume -- not cold and empty, but filled with... with what? With excitement, with sound, with humanity. The expansive world of the play filled the space.

No sound of a garbage truck in the back alley, as in the old theater on Sansom Street. Not a whisper of sound from the cars spiraling around the auditorium in the parking garage that girdles the new theater. The only sounds were the actors and the play.

Well, only one extra-theatrical sound could be heard, only once, faintly, in the distance, a sound that you may have missed if you weren't listening carefully: the gentle, muted, muffled rumble of the passing Broad Street subway.

To my ears, theatrically acculturated to the sounds of the Eighth Avenue subway rumbling through the theaters west of Broadway in New York, or to the Northern Line rumbling through the theaters along Charing Cross Road in London, this barely perceptible sound told me one thing: that theater had come home in Philadelphia.

-- Cary M. Mazer