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Filling a niche New theater company hopes to create a 'living archive'

Even in Buffalo's jam-packed landscape of theater companies, it seems there's always room for one more.

Make that three more.

This season has marked the emergence of three brand new theaters: Taylor Doherty's Buffalo Laboratory Theatre; Matthew LaChiusa's American Repertory Theatre of Buffalo; and, finally, the Playhouse of American Classics, a project of Buffalo State College professor Terence McDonald and his wife, Lorena.

"We're the 23rd theater group here," said Lorena McDonald, whose company will mount seldom-produced plays from the classic American canon at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society. "That was part of the reason we didn't do anything for such a long time."

But for the McDonalds and their Playhouse, which had a brief but healthy life in New York City in the early '90s, it seemed like now or never. They've set out to re-create once-lauded plays that have seldom seen the stage since their original productions. They hope to create what they call a "living archive" of American history by reviving productions that capture the cultural and social issues of their respective time periods.

First on the boards for PAC's inaugural season in Western New York will be the 1917 work "Why Marry?" by Jesse Lynch Williams, the first dramatic work to win the Pulitzer Prize. The play, which opens tonight, explores issues of women's liberation and maintains a surprisingly irreverent tone that the McDonalds say is perfectly relevant to modern day social issues.

"Why Marry?" includes a solid roster of local actors, including Phil Knoerzer, Kate LoConti and Paul Bene.

"We've always felt that we should be part of a library or museum," Terence McDonald said. "It's not that we look at this as didactic or educational theater. The first goal is to do a really good production, but we believe people can learn about who we are as a people and where we've been and what we can do. In a museum or a library, hopefully [they] can do exhibitions with us or around us."

That's one of the reasons the McDonalds chose to mount the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning 1961 play "All the Way Home," based on James Agee's "A Death in the Family," in February. It will run alongside the Historical Society's exhibition on mourning titled "In Loving Memory."

The third and final play in PAC's season, "Tomorrow . . . The World," is a 1943 work that looks at an American family's confrontation with World War II-era fascism. It runs from April 25 to 27.

As for the crowded field of Buffalo theater companies, the McDonalds aren't worried about competition. They're thinking small.

"We're filling a niche that no one else is doing," Terence McDonald said. "It would be great if we were a huge success and could do some full productions, but the living archive is really the main thing that we want to do. If it could be an ongoing thing in a museum or library, that would be the great success."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHAT: "Why Marry?"

WHEN: 8 tonight; 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: The Playhouse of American Classics, Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society, 25 Nottingham Court

TICKETS: $15

INFO: 873-9644 or www.playhouseofamericanclassics.org

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