"I am shocked at the number of people who have no I idea who I am talking about when I say William Inge," says Jack Cummings III, founder of the two-year-old company Transport Group. But Inge, who committed suicide at age 60, will be gone but not forgotten if Cummings has his way: the company's new production is Requiem for William, a program of seven short plays by Inge, running February 2-March 2 at the Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street).
"What I love about his writing is that it centers on big themes using small places and seemingly ordinary people," says Cummings of Inge. "It's nothing bizarre or creepy, but it's devastating nonetheless. Elia Kazan said there was 'quiet terror' in Inge's writing. And there is such poetry in the language."
In the 1950s, Inge's name was usually mentioned in the same breath as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams (who helped Inge get his first play, Farther Off From Heaven, produced in the late 1940s). While Miller's and Williams' works are constantly revived, only Bus Stop and Picnic have been given second bows on the Main Stem -- both in the 1990s, in less than stunning productions by Circle in the Square and Roundabout, respectively. While Inge's milieu (his plays are set in the Midwest) may be a factor in his decline in popularity, Cummings has another take on the subject: "I think it may be that his personal life was so quiet -- so lived behind closed doors, as opposed to Miller or Williams -- that he hasn't remained famous."
Had Cummings truly had his druthers, Transport Group would have mounted a full production of Come Back, Little Sheba; the company did a benefit reading of the 1950 drama last summer with Heather MacRae, Joseph Siravo, and Julia Murney. But due to difficulties in obtaining the rights to that work, Cummings returned to the short plays, which he had first encountered in graduate school. Though he had 11 to choose from, he says that he only connected with seven of them, including "To Boblink, For Her Spirit," about a pair of determined autograph hunters; "The Boy in the Basement," about a miserable funeral home director who still lives with his parents; and "A Social Event," about two Hollywood hopefuls who try to wangle an invitation to a mogul's funeral.
In keeping with the company's mission to showcase large casts, Requiem for William features 26 actors, including veterans Marni Nixon and Taina Elg along with such Broadway regulars as Toni DiBuono, Diane Sutherland, and Joe Kolinski. Cummings made a conscious decision not to have any actor in more than one play; "Inge's descriptions of his characters are so precise," he explains, "and I didn't want to have to shoehorn someone into the wrong part just because they were perfect for another play. It's also good for the actors, since I'm asking for minimal rehearsal time. It's a lot easier to get some people to work for you when you're not asking them to do Long Day's Journey Into Night."
Each play ends with an original song that serves as something of an epilogue. "Music is such a big component of what we do as a company," says Cummings. "And the plays are short enough that they could each accommodate a song without making the evening too lengthy." Each piece has been written by a different composer and lyricist; the 11 participants include Michael John LaChiusa, Brian Crawley, Jenny Giering, Tom Kochan, and Cheryl Stern. "Because the plays are so different from one another, I felt that each song needed its own writer," says Cummings. "Plus, given how little money we have, it would be hard to ask one composer to write the whole score."
Given that the company was formed on the cusp of September 11, it's amazing that Transport Group has been able to raise any funds at all. "That year, people seemed to feel guilty if they were giving money to anything but a 9/11 charity," says Cummings. Fortunately, he is married to Broadway star Barbara Walsh, who has not only done benefit solo concerts for the group but has helped to recruit many of her illustrious colleagues -- including Faith Prince, Malcolm Gets, Brad Oscar, Bryan Batt, and Boyd Gaines -- for the company's annual "Gimme a Break" benefits. (Walsh will not appear Requiem only because she's touring in a new Cy Coleman show.)
Cummings and Transport Group co-founder Robyn Hussa are spending their money wisely and making some very creative decisions. Last spring, the company presented an unusual version of Our Town in which George and Emily were played by older actors (Tom Ligon and Barbara Andres) and the stage manager was a teenage girl. "A lot of companies get caught up in readings and workshops," says Cummings, who does just that in his full-time job as associate director of the Lark Theater Company. "Our goal is to get one full production up each year for now, and hopefully two very soon. And whatever we put in front of people has to be of real quality."