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In Praise of Polly

Lee Melville offers a heartfelt appreciation of longtime theater critic Polly Warfield, who now has a special LADCC Award in her name. logo

Polly Warfield with her
grandson Daniel in 1995.
Last year, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle bestowed a special Lifetime Achievement Award on veteran theater critic Polly Warfield for her unparalleled, three-decade-plus career. Just think of how many thousands of plays she has seen! At this year's ceremony, on March 20, the honor continues as Polly names the first recipient of the Polly Warfield Award.

"Much to my delighted and stunned surprise, the Circle suggested an annual award in my name and I feel deeply honored," Polly says in her usual, modest manner.

LADCC President Debbi Swanson says that the purpose of the award is to create a "lasting legacy" in Polly's honor "for the fabulous contribution she has made to the theater community." It was Polly's choice that the award will acknowledge the work of a midsize or intimate company (99 seats of fewer). The initial award goes to Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.

Then, on April 10, L.A. Weekly will salute Polly as "Queen of the Angels"--special recognition which, according to the paper's theater editor, Steven Leigh Morris, will most likely never be given again. It's one of a kind, just like Polly Warfield.

Polly is known for her nurturing, perceptive, intelligent, witty, and passionate criticism. She takes copious notes as she watches shows of all types, and often catches subtleties of productions that other weary critics don't perceive. It's not that she likes everything; but Polly says there's some aspect of almost any theatrical event that can be given a positive nod. She is an actor's best friend because she never finds it necessary to rake a performance over the coals. ("I don't like to be too critical, because they're too vulnerable," she says.)

I was Polly's editor at Drama-Logue for the entire decade of the '80s. Her writing never ceased to amaze me and, to this day, I am in awe of her. I constantly learn from her reviews. Her perfection extends to her work as an editor and proofreader. Not least, she is also a dear friend and stimulating theater companion.

Warfield at Liberace's piano
in the early 1970s.
Rooted in Meadow Grove, Nebraska, Polly wrote a novel before she was 10. She majored in drama at L.A. City College, where she played such roles as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew. Becoming a theater critic was a natural union of her interests. But, before she was to sit on the aisle, her early journalistic career highlights included writing for Eleanor Roosevelt's radio show, working with Chet Huntley, and joining the staff at the San Francisco Chronicle. She also married, gave birth to two daughters (Carola and Jocelyn), and eventually resettled in Southern California, where she was employed by the Gardena Valley News. Years later, in 1980--at the behest of her longtime friend and mentor, the late Charles Faber, also a renowned theater critic--she joined the staff of Drama-Logue. She worked there as theater editor until the paper was sold in 1998 to Back Stage West, where she continues her writing duties with editor Rob Kendt.

Polly is looking forward to presenting her namesake award to Pacific Resident Theatre, which she describes as "an innovative, courageous, persistent, and reliable company." The award was chosen by consensus of the LADCC, not unilaterally by Polly. PRT was selected for its 1999 season of The Swan, Otherwise Engaged, Lulu, and The Master Builder, though Polly also cites productions from past seasons such as Slaughterhouse on Tanner's Close, The Blue Dahlia, and Tennessee Williams' Camino Real.

PRT exemplifies the kind of theater Polly really enjoys, but she insists that her tastes are eclectic: "I must say, I prefer theater that--one way or another--has an ennobling aspect and a sense of hope for humanity and the human condition. What's the use of theater that makes the comment, 'People are no damn good?' I don't mean it has to be all sweetness and light, but it shouldn't degrade and defile humanity."

Many shows and performances over the years stand out in Polly's mind. When pressed to mention a few, she remembers "a production of A Flea in Her Ear at L.A. City College; some of the Shakespearean canon at devotee Thad Taylor's Globe Playhouse, when they did all of the plays one after another and then started over again; the thrill of A Noise Within's coming upon the scene at its old Glendale Masonic Temple venue; the sizzling impact and excitement of the late Ron Link's direction of Blade to the Heat at the Mark Taper Forum, and other Link triumphs. There is a whole great treasure house of memory to call upon, and special examples surface from time to time."

The Bard is Polly's favorite playwright. "I love Shakespeare, and Chekhov is my second favorite," she says. "Molière may be next. To see Shakespeare is almost like conversing with the gods. I love Noël Coward's sophisticated comedies. Among modern playwrights, Tom Stoppard is a favorite; for a native Czech brought up in the Far East, with English as his second language, Stoppard's command of it is truly amazing. I admire his clarity of thought and his inventiveness.

"I also love farce," Polly continues. "Feydeau's skill astounds and delights me. I love Wilde, Shaw, Williams. And, of course, musical theater. Who can resist My Fair Lady or Cabaret? I will never forget the thrill of my first time seeing Man of La Mancha when it was staged at El Camino College--an epiphany! Later, I was moved by another La Mancha on the tiny Showcase Theatre stage."

It was during Polly's tenure as editor-in-chief for the Gardena paper when she began reviewing theater in the South Bay area, "truly wonderful productions of professional quality in small community theaters. Theater gold is wherever you find it," she says. "I'm sure I always loved theater, ever since I began seeing Chautauqua shows in tents in small Nebraska towns."

Polly has observed the Los Angeles theater scene change and grow over these many years. It rankles her--as it does many established, longtime theater professionals--when people question whether of not L.A. is really a "theater town." "This has been a great theater town, for as long as I can recall," she says. "Put me down as partisan. The acting, directing, and designing talent on tap here never ceases to amaze me. I'm continually seeing whole casts of actors I've never seen before, with terrific talents among them. Of course, the money problem is always present, as is the continual dilemma of how to attract larger audiences to live theater."

In which direction does she see theater going? "I haven't yet discerned that," she replies. "I can only hope it will be away from the dreary, hopeless, nihilistic view of life and living that some modern playwrights embrace. As for any danger of theater losing its experimental nature, I don't think that will happen. Creative playwrights and playmakers will always want to experiment and test the limits--sometimes, it seems, just for experiment's sake. What a thrill it would be to hail a new Shakespeare, with new inspiration for the millennium. Or a new Chekhov, with an all-embracing humanity.

"That is not likely to happen any time soon," Polly admits. "In the meantime, we're lucky to settle for what we have: an embarrassment of riches."

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