A theater’s character evolves from its quirkiness and uniqueness. The St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland is loaded with character because of its long history, its physical presence on Munjoy Hill and the lovable oddities of the performance space.
With 110 seats, the theater ensures that everybody is close to the stage, and the raked risers of nine rows of seats pretty much guarantee good sight lines for everyone, unless you’re seated behind someone very tall or an ill-mannered cowboy who won’t remove his hat. When the house is full, there’s not a lot of knee room and not much space to stash a winter jacket.
The reward is the opportunity to sit among a relatively small group of people and watch performers work their craft on a stage that’s large enough for a big theater cast and small enough to host bands and soloists.
It’s a warm theater, with dozens of stained glass windows that make it feel sacred and good acoustics that benefit from the original wooden ceilings. That means actors can project their voices more easily to the back row and musicians can connect more personally with the audience. We saw that a few weeks ago when guitarist Albert Lee performed there. It was nice not only to hear him clearly, but it was great also to be able to watch his fingers and hands up close.
And we’re seeing it every night this month, with Good Theater, the resident theater company at the St. Lawrence, in the midst of 33 days (and nights) of continuous theater, with “Love Letters” running Sunday, Monday and Tuesday through Feb. 21, and “The May Queen” running Wednesday through Sunday afternoons, through Feb. 26.
St. Lawrence also has character. The stone building is an architectural gem, built in Queen Anne’s style in 1897 as a house of religious worship. It was home to a congregation from Munjoy Hill until it was deconsecrated in 1986. It was listed as a National Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was designated as a local landmark by the City of Portland in 1990. But the building deteriorated because of decades of neglect and was nearly condemned.
The Friends of the St. Lawrence have kept it going and are attempting to raise money to expand the building and create a 401-seat theater to complement the existing 110-seater.
It also has quirkiness. The risers are made with wood, which means they creak and groan. It’s hard to move quietly in the theater because of it, and if you accidentally kick over a beer bottle stashed on the floor by your feet, just pray it doesn’t happen during a quiet moment on stage.
The bathrooms are downstairs in the basement, which isn’t convenient. The lobby can be very crowded at intermission, when a bottleneck forms among people buying concessions and those just trying to stretch their legs or head to the restrooms.
But, just like the complaints about a lack of parking, all those issues are easily overcome. Just as it is, the St. Lawrence is a great place to see a show.
ST. LAWRENCE ARTS CENTER
LOCATION: 76 Congress St., Portland
TICKETS & INFO: stlawrencearts.org
SEATING STYLE: Nine rows of seats, arranged on fixed risers
REFRESHMENTS: Beer, wine and snacks
PARKING: On street
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Not at the moment. The theater will replace a broken chair lift in the coming weeks, thanks to a $38,000 fundraising campaign that is within $3,000 of its goal.