SAN DIEGO — When you ask for the whereabouts of a theater, in most cases a physical address will suffice. But then there are people who, like thespian snails, are their theaters, carrying theatrical productions on their backs.
Steve Pearson and Robyn Hunt are such a pair. Their San Diego Public Theatre, which closed its second and last physical space at the Old Candy Factory on 8th and K in 1985, will be producing "Sea Marks" by Gardner McKay at the Warren Theater through Sunday in cooperation with the UC San Diego Department of Theatre.
The two have kept busy since 1985 as acting artistic directors at the Bowery (which ended in June) and occasional directing at UC San Diego where both teach (Pearson most recently directed "Volpone" on the main stage in November).
But "Sea Marks" is the first San Diego Public Theatre production since then, and it's a telling choice for them. The two-person play is about an Irish fisherman who writes to a city girl from Liverpool and ends by falling in love with her. Pearson and Hunt, who are in real life very much a couple, first acted it in the old Wing Cafe in Golden Hill in 1983, their first theatrical home. They liked the show so much they used it to open their next space at the Old Candy Factory.
But even if you caught the show before, Pearson stressed-- with Hunt's concurrence--that this version under the direction of Jim Carmody, their colleague at UC San Diego, is very different.
"We did 'Gaslight,' and we played it for 10 weeks and that was enough," Pearson said. "It wasn't a very deep play. But there are other plays that you want to keep doing because you don't feel you got it or you want to find something deeper."
And what is so deep about this simply structured epistolary love story?
According to Hunt, who discovered the play in an Eastern theater, "I was struck then and am even more struck now by how Gardner has managed to write something so exquisitely tender. The characters are not romanticized and it's not a sentimental play, but there's a lot of love in the play and there's no way of getting around it.
"To see these ordinary people struggling with their love for their careers, for each other, for the sea, for language with such dignity, (to see them) struggling to find a way to love and remain intact is a very good thing to communicate to people."
Curiously, the San Diego Public Theatre began as "a theater that had a very strong political point of view," Pearson said. Alternating their sentences, Pearson and Hunt described that point of view as being dedicated to doing plays "that aren't racist or sexist," that in some way deal with the refusal to accept the possibility of nuclear war--the last being a very hot topic that threatened to shift the conversation to a rather fevered criticism of the arms buildup.
This led to a question of whether this choice of play was a departure for them.
Both shook their heads and pondered, while director Carmody, who admits he has become a fan of the two and looks forward to working with them again, offered the response that caused them both to nod.
"What's so profoundly political about this play is that these (characters) are people who have hope and are not afraid to take advantage of the opportunities open to them. The message of the play is that there are always opportunities--though maybe not on the level of a Hollywood extravaganza."
Pearson, taking out the pipe he started carving for his part for the very first production ("It's finally finished," he said), added, "If we cry together and laugh together and they (the audience) recognizes something that is true, you'll have a collective 'ahh ' that means they're experiencing some communion of mind that we don't often see."
After closing at the Warren Theatre and delivering the proceeds to the newly established UC San Diego Theatre Department Graduate Student Emergency Loan Fund, Hunt and Pearson plan to take the show on tour, a decision Hunt described with an almost missionary zeal.
"I feel compelled to take a piece to as many people as we can that causes people to feel deeply. . . .The more cynical we become the less able we are to change things."
With all their emphasis on the importance of the personal nature of the play, Hunt and Pearson made it clear that they prefer not to dwell upon their personal lives.
"So far," said Hunt in a soft-spoken, but pointed tone, "we've been able to keep it out of the papers." Still, she admitted, "It's true that we have a shorthand. We work more quickly together."
Pearson also underlined the importance of trust between them. "We share a kind a language.. . . If a line drops, I know she'll be out there."