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Southern Rapture recalls the local Angels in America flap 

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Bad week for our world-class pretensions.

"My impression was that the whole thing came out of that front page story," Coble confides. "From what I could read in the press and talk to people, that seemed to be the big trigger. The theater thought they were going along and preparing the community, and the community didn't seem to particularly care. Then suddenly, here was this article, and things exploded."

Coble capitalizes on his golden opportunity, demonizing Larisher just enough that he's frequently lurking backstage during Rapture rehearsals, trolling for quotes to further inflame the citywide controversy, and twisting what Poindexter counterpart Mickey Stedman says to suit his purposes. Compared with the firewall Coble maintains between the real-life Martin and the fictionalized Sherman, there's virtually none between Brown and Larisher.

Why bother? You see, when Brown jumped ship at the Charlotte Observer -- before JoAnn Grose and Julie York Coppens followed him -- it was to become the theater critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Coble was already an established Cleveland writer, part of The Playwrights' Unit at Cleveland Play House, before he first became involved with Actor's Theatre of Charlotte.

So Brown was one of the first people Coble interviewed when he plunged into his Angels research. Nor does he deny that his Larisher is an apt, pointed portrait.

"I'm glad you feel it's apt," Coble responds. "I have no idea whether Tony would. I'm certainly going to invite him down to see the show. I know he comes back to Charlotte fairly frequently, and I'd love to get his point of view. I'm sure he's never been onstage before, in that regard, so I think that would be fun for him. But whether or not he likes what he sees, I have no idea."

Whoa, isn't that a little too much candor?

"I wasn't trying to do a caricature of Tony Brown per se," Coble backpedals. "Throughout the play, there's the desire by the media to find the story and to build the story. If it looks like there's a little flame there, then get in there and poke around. And if it happens to fire up even bigger, well, that's more exciting. So, as opposed to that being Tony Brown, I think that's my portrayal of the media. And the Good Morning America thing is the same way. They just keep goading on, trying to build a bigger and bigger argument, to further divide as opposed to bring together."

Up until auditions, Decker didn't know whether any of the original Angels in America cast might show an interest in Coble's provocative offshoot. None did. But a couple of Rep stalwarts are playing key roles in Southern Rapture, onstage and off. Tim Ross, who starred with Rep in Proposals and Last Night of Ballyhoo, will be Mayor Paxton. Claudia Carter Covington, who distinguished herself in Some Things That Can Go Wrong at 35000 Feet and Eleemosynary, was also Rep's literary manager, playing a key role in the annual New Play Festival.

As Actor's Theatre takes its maiden voyage in new play premieres, Covington is midwifing, serving as dramaturge for successive drafts of Southern Rapture. Preparing to work with Coble, she bought everything of his that she could. She liked what she read.

"I was really thrilled to think that he was the guy who was going to take this on," she says. "I just felt that he was exactly the right playwright for this. I still think that. Eric had a really wonderful play when it came to me in the first draft."

Leading up to Angels, Covington participated in Rep's decisions about the educational outreach the company would do in the community, and though she wasn't involved in the production itself, she was at all the staff meetings when the town went ballistic. That made her a perfect interview subject for Coble.

Covington was pleasantly surprised that Coble's treatment is so close to the real story. What didn't surprise her was the playwright's choice for the hysterical climax that ends Act 1.

"Anybody who knew anything about the debacle would have known that the comedy had to come out of the Good Morning America thing," she says. "I mean, that was ludicrous! I saw that conversation, and it was absolutely ridiculous. I don't think Keith and the mayor were ridiculous, but I think that conversation was absolutely absurd, particularly that it was on national television."

After devoting 20 years to the Rep, Covington still feels the impact of the retributions inflicted upon Martin, Umberger, and all the other taxpaying artists who performed, designed and directed in the company. The pain and the anger are still in her voice -- along with the talent and the intelligence.

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