20-year theater exchange marked with comedy performance by British troupe

It was serendipity that two local theater groups — 4,000 miles apart — found each other. For the next two weekends, they will celebrate their 20-year friendship and love of performance at The Drama Group, 330 W. 202nd Street in Chicago Heights.

The production by the Stable Theatre of Hastings, England, is also part of The Drama Group’s 90th anniversary as a regional theater. It is also marking its return after a shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The British troupe will be performing “Run for Your Wife,” described as a classical British farce, for this year’s exchange. The show tells the story of a cabdriver living a double life. All was well until he was in an accident, and police notify both his wives.

Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11; Thursday, Friday and Saturday, June 16, 17 and 18; and 2 p.m. on Sundays, June 12 and 19. Tickets are $23. For ticket information visit www.dramagroup.com.

The Stable Theatre cast and crew arrive a few days before the first show, so they can acclimate to the Drama Group’s Milord Theatre.

“They’ve already performed (the comedy), but they’re going to be working in a totally new environment. It won’t be their set. We’ll build them a set. It won’t be their sound, it won’t be their lights and a lot of things that need to be worked on,” said Drama Group member Tony Labriola. “And our stage is different than their stage. Their stage is narrow and deep, ours is wide and shallow so there’s a lot that needs to be done in blocking and things.”

The group has done some very serious performances, including Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare, as well as lots of comedy. Labriola remembers one performance, a radio performance of McBeth, that had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s famous play but rather the hijinks of everything going on behind the scenes.

Labriola was one of the first people to work on developing the exchange that blossomed from a romance between John Pohlhammer of Park Forest and Vanessa Slacke of Hastings, England, who met while working as entertainers on a cruise ship. When they decided to marry, their parents met and learned they both had connections to local theater.

Don Pohlhammer suggested an exchange. There was interest from his new British friends and when he brought the idea to the Drama Group board, it got the green light.

It was 1999 when Labriola, with Tina and Rick Zagone, traveled to England to propose the exchange. 

“The concept of the exchange was we would do something that was really centered to our own cultures. So, we would do something that was very American and take it there,” Labriola said. 

Tina Zagone started off with the Drama Group play, “Spoon River Anthology,” that she was directing. It is based on Illinois poet laureate Edgar Lee Masters’ poems about a fictional small town in Illinois. 

“The following year they came here with (Charles) Dickens and ‘Great Expectations.’ Those two things were the real kickoff of the exchange program,” Labriola said. 

He reflected on the 20 years of performances: “The exchange means not just that we perform in each other’s spaces, but when we went there, they provided lodging with people who are part of the theater. We had activities that they had arranged for us, and we made many friends.

“I think it’s not just about the performance; it’s the friends, the connections that have been made, sharing theater expertise, talking about everything from different lighting fixtures, sound boards and how performances has changed between the two cultures.” 

This year, Drama Group members will again welcome their British friends into their homes. Labriola is planning a regional excursion traveling by Model A Fords to Pontiac, Illinois, and a pub crawl.

“It’ll be great fun,” he said.

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