Local residents are justly proud of the Westport Country Playhouse. Since 1931, an old cow barn and tannery in an apple orchard has been transformed into a historic and influential piece of American theater history.
For years, Westport was also home to the White Barn Theatre. Less known — and operating only on weekends — the small stage in a former horse barn boasts plenty of its own history. Founded in 1947 by noted actress and theater producer Lucille Lortel, it premiered works by Eugene Ionesco, Athol Fugard and Edward Albee.
When the White Barn closed in 2002 — 3 years after Lortel’s death, at 98 — Westport lost 1 of our 2 theatrical jewels.
Or so we thought.
Recent press reports — including the New York Times — about a battle to save the theater building from demolition, and conserve acres of nearby woods and streams — place the White Barn Theatre in Norwalk.
Most of the 15-acre property lies in Norwalk. A back parcel — around 2.5 acres — is in Westport.
The theater — which still stands, unused, with Al Hirschfeld’s drawings of the many famous playwrights, actors and visitors on the walls — was on Norwalk land. Apparently, years ago, Lortel persuaded the Westport post office to deliver mail there.
She must have figured a Westport address meant more to theater-goers than a Norwalk one.
How much longer the decaying theater — and Lortel’s handsome home — will remain standing is in doubt.
A long-running fight over the property — encompassing old-growth forest, trails, meadows, a pond and waterfall — may be coming to a head. Various factions are fighting over its future. A developer wants to build 15 houses.
Meanwhile, Lortels’ grand-nephew — 25-year-old Waldo Mayo, an actor himself — is trying to buy the land and revive the theater. He’s got support from folks like Kevin Spacey and Kelli O’Hara (who really does live in Westport). Raising the $5 million-plus purchase price has been slow — but a major fundraiser is in the works.
The Save Cranbury Association — a longtime neighborhood that includes nearby Westport residents — is backing Mayo. They’re concerned about the impact of 15 homes on wetlands and wildlife.
Demolition of the theater has been temporarily delayed. Earlier work — including asbestos removal — had already begun.
It’s a true-life story. One that would make an intriguing play.
Set either in Westport or Norwalk.
Though like the White Barn Theatre itself, where it is is less important than what it means.
(To learn more about saving the White Barn Theater, click here.)