So there I was, sitting around having lunch. Nice talk, nice people, nice feeling. Eventually, I was asked what the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ was doing this season, and when I got to The Baker's Wife, Louis Schaeffer said, "You know, I saw the original 1976 production in St. Louis" -- which prompted Sally Baird to add, "Funny, I saw that same production when it came to San Francisco." I slowly shook my head from side to side in amazement, then added, "And I saw that production when it came to Boston." Who'd believe there'd be three people at the same table who saw the same production of a flop that wouldn't even make it into New York -- and that they saw it in three completely different locations during its cross-country tryout?

But that wasn't even the most astonishing aspect of the coincidence. This conversation wasn't occurring in some Manhattan restaurant, as you'd guess, but in Springfield, Missouri -- 1,171 miles from Broadway, as Louis Schaeffer likes to say in the brochure that advertises his Vandivort Center Theatre. You may be expecting to hear that the Vandivort has offered shows like You Can't Take It with You and Under the Yum-Yum Tree in its 10-year history, but that's hardly the case. Three Tall Women, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Painting Churches, and Kiss of the Spider Woman are just some of the shows that Schaeffer, the executive producer, and Richard P. Dines, the associate producer, have mounted. This season, they've opened with The Guys and Bent. Next up is Master Class. Last season, they did Wit -- yes, with the nudity. Explains Schaeffer, "The town ordinances say that we can do nudity if we don't serve liquor, too. It's either-or."

But Springfield audiences who do want to see You Can't Take It with You can take that play in, too -- right next door at the Springfield Little Theatre. If you're envisioning a church where the altar is masked with black velour and playgoers sit in pews, forget it. The Springfield Little Theatre is a two-balcony former vaudeville house that's approaching its 100th birthday. It's been lovingly restored -- painted, carpeted and gilded to look just as it did the day it opened. Audiences can now sit in comparative splendor as they watch Nunsense or more adventurous fare such as The Miss Firecracker Contest.

Springfield Center was pretty bleak until Vandivort was founded and the Little Theatre was renovated. Once again, live theater turned a distressed downtown into a desirable destination. These two theaters begat restaurants, which begat clubs and art galleries. I was there on both a Friday and Saturday night, and I can say the neon lights are bright on East Walnut Street -- and the surrounding streets, too. But I hadn't come to town to see a show at either the Vandivort or the Little. Instead, I'd see Free Man of Color by Charles Smith. Seems that Sally Baird doesn't just catch pre-Broadway tryouts of musicals in San Francisco; she and her husband Rob often drive to Chicago to see new plays there. They saw Free Men of Color at the Tony-winning Victory Gardens, where Smith is a resident playwright, and they were both so smitten by the work that they decided to bring it to Springfield.

Not the production -- just the script. They decided to have Mick Denniston, one of Springfield's better directors, restage it with three of the town's most acclaimed performers: Marcia Haseltine, Herman Johansen, and Tony Wheeler. William Brandon "Bucky" Bowman, who heads the Arts Patronage Initiative in Springfield, made the arrangements for the play to be performed at Founders Park, an outdoor cement mall where plaques celebrate the town and its accomplishments. The Bairds, whose business is concrete, built the place, and some of the money earned from their Conco Companies supports the arts.

I talked to a bunch of people while in Springfield, mostly young counter-cultural types who are scrounging to make a buck in some art form. I expected that several of them would trash the Bairds. That's what's happens when I've been in other towns and met with struggling artists; not much time passes before they slash at the fat cat. But no matter to whom I spoke -- young or old, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay -- everyone had only the most profound gratitude for the Bairds' willingness to put their money where their passions are. I'm sure that's why Rob and Sally have the satisfied smiles of people who have lived wisely and well.

Once I arrived at Founders Park, I overheard some ushers assessing the merits of Wicked vs. Avenue Q -- again, something I didn't necessarily expect to hear in Springfield, Missouri. And these were high school students! I soon introduced myself to Elijah Blaine Cunnigham, who couldn't decide if Finch or the Scarecrow was his favorite role at Parkview High School. Brie Cassil knew that hers was Lady Bracknell. Proving there are no small parts, only small actors, Clifford Lyons said that he had a blast as Harvey Johnson in Bye Bye Birdie. I'm telling you, this Springfield is quite a theater town.

Free Man of Color turned out to be everything the Bairds said it was. Smith, who's the head of the playwriting program at Ohio University of Athens, knew that a building on campus was named after John Newton Templeton but didn't know who the man was. When he discovered that Templeton was an African-American like him, he wanted to learn more. Spurred by a commission from Ohio University to celebrate its bicentennial this year, Smith wrote a play that has quite more fact in it than fiction. He first introduces us to Robert Wilson, the head of Ohio University in the 1820's. Wilson takes under his wing a young black student and former slave, Templeton, convinced that he's extraordinarily bright and deserves to be educated. Wilson's wife Jane is furious that he's bothering with someone whom she considers little more than an animal, but he remains steadfast in wanting to see that this young man gets the best education he possibly can.

So Robert's the good guy and Jane the bad one, right? Not so fast. What Robert has in mind is that he'll educate Templeton so well that he'll be able to become the first governor of Liberia. But what if the kid doesn't want to go? What if he wants to stay in America, which he considers his home? Jane warns Templeton of what's happening and the drama works out with remarkable force. (That Haseltine, Johansen, and Wheeler provided dynamic performances certainly helped.)

The audience gave no applause after the first scene; Missouri, you may recall, is called the "Show-Me" State, and the crowd was true to form in not showing any premature enthusiasm. But as the show progressed, the attendees were indeed shown what a good play this was. There was a smattering of applause after the second (strong) scene and increasingly more after each scene that followed. That's how you know a show is succeeding.

"I'm very pleased," Sally Baird beamed afterwards. And she began to tell the story that so many others had told me after I arrived in Springfield. Seems that, 100 years ago, a series of lynchings so frightened the blacks in town that they moved out of Springfield en masse. "Even now," says Sally Baird, "we only have about a 2% black population, and that's simply not enough. This is a town thirsty for diversity." Yeah, I can understand why she and her husband have so many supporters in Springfield.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]