Civic Theatre opens season with ‘Night Watch’ |

Civic Theatre opens season with ‘Night Watch’

Rex Rutkoski

New Kensington Civic Theatre will usher in the Halloween season tonight with its version of “Chiller Theater.”

Lucille Fletcher’s psychological thriller “Night Watch,’ being staged at Valley High School today, Saturday and Sunday, also will open the 58th season of the nonprofit community arts organization.

“It is a constant source of amazement to realize that, after 58 years, we are still one of the Valley’s best-kept secrets,” says Cyndi Debor of Arnold, theater president. “The New Kensington Civic Theatre is the oldest, continuously operating community theater in Pennsylvania, if not the East. Our sincere hope is that we can reach many, many more people and introduce them to this amazing source of entertainment, which is live theater.”

In that attempt for the 2003-2004 season, Debor says they have blended an interesting mix of plays, “truly something for everyone.”

Very old: “Dirty Work at The Crossroads,” Nov. 20 through 23 at Valley High School. “An old-fashioned melodrama,” Debor says.

Very new: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change!” May 13 through16, Casino Theatre, Vandergrift. “This musical will be the first performance in western Pennsylvania coming directly from off Broadway,” she says.

Suspense: “Night Watch.” Fletcher also was the author of “Sorry, Wrong Number.”

Comedy: “Love, Sex and the IRS,” March 11 through 14, Penn State New Kensington Campus, Upper Burrell, which Debor describes as “a silly farce, just in time for tax season, with ridiculous situations and hilarious antics.”

All of the plays are new to the New Kensington Civic Theatre stage. “Patrons will have a new experience each time they come,” Debor says.

Director Nick Armocida of Penn Hills, in his return to the Civic Theatre after an absence of several years, suggests he wants to make certain the opening experience is especially entertaining.

“Night Watch” offers twists and turns, he says. “Mysteries always excited me. They make you sit up in your seat,” he says.

Troubled by unsettling memories and vague fears, Elaine Wheeler (portrayed by Clenice Vincent of Lower Burrell) paces in her Manhattan living room. Her husband, John Wheeler (Bob Peters of New Kensington), tries to comfort her, but when he steps away for a moment, Elaine screams as she sees a body in the window across the way.

The police find nothing but an empty chair. Elaine’s terror increases as she sees another body. Her husband thinks she is on the verge of a breakdown.

Fletcher tempts the audience with these questions: “Is Elaine crazy, or is there a murderer on the loose• And, can he or she be stopped in time?”

Armocida, a veteran actor and director in Pittsburgh theater, chose to set the production in the 1940s. “I love that era. And I knew my costumer, Rita Devlin, who is one of the finest costumers I’ve ever worked with, would be excited to bring this period back. The smooth, suave guys up there on stage, theater from the 1940s was the best theater I had ever seen.”

Devlin, a Leechburg native who lives in Verona, says authenticity is important. “I try to be as theatrical and dramatic as possible.The costume should enhance the character being played.”

Lower Burrell resident Bill Mitas’ set is one of the stars, visually and in terms of design, giving the Valley High auditorium a more intimate atmosphere. His stage reaches out into the audience. He has fashioned an elaborate Manhattan apartment complete with outside trimmings of gargoyles and stone.

“I wanted to create an elegant, warm, low-contrast overall tone to the set,” Mitas explains. “This will help accent the characters in their brilliantly designed and crafted costumes.”

Production chairman Dennis Sulava of New Kensington, who also portrays police lieutenant Walker, says the set could be the most elaborate of the year. “Bill is a very talented artist,” he says.

Peters says it is a joy to work on a Mitas set. “It gives an actor so much,” he says.

“The Civic Theatre technically is the best organization I’ve ever worked with: lighting, sound, staging, sets and special effects,” Armocida says. A graduate of the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Armocida, in addition to regional theater, has worked in New York City Off-Broadway, as well as in productions in Washington, D.C.

To be a good director, he says, you have to be a good actor. “It took me a long time before I thought I was ready to direct,” he says. “I’m a very method-type director, getting deeper into a character and pulling out more than what they give me.”

He admits to being “heavy handed” in that approach. “Sometimes that offends people, but that’s me and how I was trained. That’s theater.”

It was the opportunity to work with Armocida that prompted her to return to the Civic Theatre stage for “Night Watch,” says Pat Condelli of New Kensington, a veteran of the organization. She had a feature role in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s 2002 production of “Singin’ In The Rain.”

“Nick is an incredible talent, just one of the best actors ever,” says Condelli, who plays Blanche Cook who befriends Elaine Wheeler. “I just admired him so much as an actor that I felt I could really learn something from him as a director. Being in this show is like going to acting school for me. I feel as though I should be paying to participate because of the training I am receiving from such an outstanding actor who is willing to share by directing.”

Armocida directed the Civic Theatre offerings of “Rain” and “Bus Stop.”

Peters says “Night Watch” is a play that will keep audiences guessing. “The story is different from anything we have staged in a while. You never quite know what will happen and what does happen until the very end. That’s exactly the way a thriller is meant to be,” he says.

Peters is finding his role rewarding, because he has done so many comedic characters of late. “John Wheeler is a very driven and successful Wall Street executive who has great command and is in control of his life and surroundings. He is now dealing with a situation at home he is losing control of. I like the challenge of playing a lead role that is more of a supporting role to the lead, Elaine, but at the same time bringing depth and range to the character without overdoing it.”

Galyn Mitas of Lower Burrell, props co-chairman, says “Night Watch” should be only the beginning of what promises to be an exciting season.

“We are experimenting with some new ideas and combining them with some of our traditions,” she explains.

It’s all about an organization approaching its 60th birthday and working hard to stay fresh.

Additional Information:

If you go

What: ‘Night Watch.’

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. There is no show Friday.

Where: Valley High School, New Kensington.

Cost: $10; group and student rates available.

Details: 724-339-3140; online: .

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