A swimsuit and cap hang on the hook inside the door of Irene Lewis' office at Center Stage. She hasn't worn them lately because of an inner ear problem, but these days she doesn't have much time for swimming anyway.
Besides serving as the theater's acting artistic director, she is directing the first play of the season, Ugo Betti's "The Queen and the Rebels," which opens Wednesday.
Added to these concerns is the inescapable consideration that "she is on the short-short list" of contenders for the permanent position of artistic director, according to W. David MacCallan, chairman of the search committee.
Perhaps understandably, Ms. Lewis doesn't feel it appropriate to comment on this, but she does say, "I don't feel I'm auditioning." Nor does she see the interim job as merely maintaining continuity at Center Stage, where Stan Wojewodski Jr. held the artistic post for 14 seasons and gave the theater a national profile before moving on last summer to head the Yale School of Drama and Yale Repertory Theatre. Instead, she says, "I'm doing it exactly as I would run a theater. . . . I've been in the business
long enough that I could step into any theater and run it for a year."
She is referring to her tenure as artistic director of the Philadelphia Drama Guild in the early 1980s, which followed eight years at the Hartford [Conn.] Stage Company, culminating in the position of associate director. In recent years she has enjoyed a solid career as a free-lance director at such places as the Berkeley [Calif.] Repertory Theatre, the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Ga., and the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, not to mention five years as an associate artist at Center Stage, where she has directed at least as many productions as any other free-lancer.
As the tone of her remarks suggests, Ms. Lewis, 49, comes across as someone very sure of herself.
"I think what's so exhilarating for those of us working with Irene is that she's clear about what she can do," says Peter W. Culman, Center Stage's managing director.
In 1980, when Ms. Lewis directed the first of 11 plays she has helmed at Center Stage, she told a reporter: "A woman director has to have a great deal of confidence in the way she's going to work."
Hearing that today, she reaffirms it heartily. "In a more public art, I think you do have to acquire a certain sense of self. . . . You basically have to rely on yourself in terms of your own growth."
The notion of acquiring this sense was one reason she was attracted to "The Queen and the Rebels," a lesser-known work by a modern Italian playwright who, though highly respected, is rarely produced in this country. (A 1982 Broadway revival starring the late Colleen Dewhurst was short-lived.)
Betti's 1949 script takes place in an unnamed European country in the throes of revolution. A group of travelers is detained by military officers who are looking for the escaped queen of the old order. During the interrogation, a peasant woman named Argia is mistaken for the queen.
Argia, Ms. Lewis says with evident admiration, "is someone who has no sense of self other than to scramble, and in the course of this play she decides she indeed has choice." In a broader context, explains production dramaturg Rick Davis, "Betti says without that sense of self you have nothing."
"The Queen and the Rebels" is being staged in the flexible Head Theater, and for the first time, the entire vast space is being used. The result is a playing area more than twice as deep as most stages. In addition, the theater's rough architectural details are being incorporated into Betti's abandoned town hall setting.
"The space itself suggested the play," Mr. Davis says.
Taking a visitor upstairs to watch the set being installed, Ms. Lewis cannot disguise her enthusiasm for the innovative Head Theater, where she will also direct another rarely produced work, Shakespeare's "Pericles," in February.
Although "Pericles" and "The Queen and the Rebels" are both semi-obscure texts, they are only one part of a balanced season that Mr. Culman calls "the phenomenal panoply Irene Lewis has come up with." Also included are two classic masterpieces, Ibsen's "A Doll House" and Moliere's "The Misanthrope," as well as three new scripts, Paula Vogel's "The Baltimore Waltz," Marion Isaac McClinton's "Police Boys" and Athol Fugard's latest work, "My Children! My Africa!"
The season may not be an easy one, but it reflects the respect Ms. Lewis feels for the Center Stage audience. "I think it's an audience that likes to be challenged. I think nationally the profile of this theater is very high," she says, citing its reputation for "interesting, literate work."