We are being told (or is it sold?) that the economy is making a recovery. Yet many of New Jersey’s 24 high-profile non-profit professional theaters have had to reduce expenses, reconsider the affordability of some plays, and downsize their staff. Nevertheless, optimism abounds as it should, and a unified pledge seems to be repeated by the artistic and executive leadership: keep the curtain going up and bring to the supporters, subscribers, and single ticket purchasers the best theater possible.

Passage Theater

June Ballinger, the artistic director of the Passage Theater in Trenton for the past 13 years, has at the top of her press release an encouraging motto: “Our curtain still goes up, even when the market’s down.”

There is no question that the economy has affected artistic decisions this season across the board. To confront this free fall head on, Ballinger says the season is “entirely homegrown.” Instead of casting in New York as they have for the past 23 years, she says, “we are casting mainly from a New Jersey and Philly pool of actors, many of whom consider Philadelphia their base rather than New York and live in the Trenton/Philly area.” A significant connection has been established between Passage Theater and McCarter Theater. Both Rob Lanchester, former associate artistic director under McCarter’s Nagle Jackson, and Adam Immerwahr, who is currently the producing associate at McCarter Theater but also Passage’s resident director, will be directing productions this season.

But why is Ballinger notably excited about a new play, “Blood: A Comedy,” opening this fall and written by her associate artistic director, David White? “I am in it,” she says. “I have demurred from acting myself at Passage for 13 years of my tenure, but as I say, this year is different!” Ballinger and White have also created a new theater piece for their spring production tentatively called “Giambotta” (all mixed up), an ensemble piece with music based on the stories and oral histories of Trenton residents. Passage Theater is offering three mainstage productions, five weeks of solo performances, and a slew of special events. The season has a promising start on Thursday, September 17, with “Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” starring Demetria Joyce Bailey as the renowned blues singer and actress.

McCarter Theater

It’s a milestone year at McCarter Theater, as Emily Mann celebrates her 20th year as artistic director. LucyAnn Dunlap’s recent interview with Mann (U.S. 1, August 26) includes a quote that perfectly defines her mission for the past 20 years: “The audience developed as I developed as artistic director. That takes time to cultivate. But this is such a lively, smart crowd and even when they don’t like something, they have interesting comments to make. The theater is open to that communication and is congenial to the creative process.”

McCarter’s season opens with a revival of one of the theater’s and Mann’s biggest hits, “Having Our Say.” Written and directed by Mann, this play adapted from the book by Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany with Amy Hill Hearth opened at McCarter in 1995, moved directly to Broadway, and became a hit at regional theaters across America.

Next up is Oliver Goldsmith’s raucous restoration comedy, “She Stoops to Conquer.” Bringing in the New Year is the world premiere of “Fetch Clay, Make Man,” an explosive new drama from acclaimed playwright, actor, rapper and educator Will Power. In the play, Power, who was commissioned by McCarter to write the play, explores the improbable bond formed between heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali and Hollywood star Stepin Fetchit.

Despite “grappling” with the reduction in funding from the state and from McCarter’s own endowment fund, managing director Timothy J. Shields says, “single ticket sales are running ahead of the pace at this time last year. No doubt the popularity of ‘Having Our Say’ has something to do with this, but even the perennial favorite, ‘A Christmas Carol,’ is showing strong sales.”

Another connection worth noting is the one that McCarter will have this season with Steppenwolf Theater with the transfer of the acclaimed Chicago company’s production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo.” It will be especially interesting to see this version of the taut and terrifying play about three small-time crooks who plot a midnight robbery, especially in light of last season’s problematic Broadway revival. The long-delayed new musical “Take Flight” from long-time musical collaborators Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire finally makes it to the McCarter stage this spring. The world premiere musical, about the interweaving stories of three pioneers of aeronautics — the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart — will be staged by British director Sam Buntrock, director of the Broadway revival of “Sunday in the Park with George.”

Shakespeare Theater

of New Jersey

We have to wait one more year for Bonnie J. Monte to celebrate her 20th anniversary as the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Although Monte perseveres in her mission to present old and modern classics in the most creative ways, she is the first to admit that the economy has affected the season “massively.” “Of course, our goal is that no one will notice. It’s where our magic begins. But we have taken steps to protect ourselves so that we can continue the epic scope of the work,” she says, emphasizing the downsizing necessary to cut down the expense of putting on a show. One way Monte says she is accomplishing this: “I wrote my own adaptation of ‘Around the World in 80 Days,’ and I didn’t charge royalties, plus I’m also directing and designing more work this season than is usually done by one person in four seasons.”

In planning for the current staging of “Hamlet,” Monte asked herself, “What do we have already on hand to complete my vision of the play without spending money?” In discussing “Hamlet,” Monte says, “I don’t think Hamlet’s dilemma is his inability to act. Rather he proceeds with reason, but in a situation so complicated that he is unsure how to act. He delays until he can come up with the right answer.” Unlike Hamlet, it appears that Monte acts assuredly with as she calls it, “cautious optimism.” A good plan.

If you are a “Hamlet” fan, you won’t want to miss this production starring Gareth Saxe in the title role and Robert Cuccioli as Claudius. STNJ resident director Joe Discher returns to John Steinbeck territory (he directed a highly acclaimed “Of Mice and Men” in 2004) with Frank Galati’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath,” beginning October 21. The season ends with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” a good choice to celebrate the holiday season from December 2 through January 3.

Frankly, I’m not worried about theater flourishing this season and into the decade and beyond. There hasn’t been a year since 1642 that hasn’t been the recipient of either devastating edicts and/or dire predictions with regard to the survival of the theater, be it politics, censors, or the stock market. And, in case you’re wondering, 1642 was the year when the Protestant authorities in England banned the performance of all plays within the city limits of London at the start of the English Civil War.

George Street Playhouse

If Broadway seems to be deluged with shows that predominantly appeal to a pop-culture mentality, our regional theaters, as is true of our neighbors Off Broadway, reward their audiences with shows that consistently cater to and entertain the more discriminating and intelligent. This is not to say that there isn’t room for a goofy musical delight such as “The Toxic Avenger,” as produced by George Street Playhouse last season, moving to greater award-winning success Off Broadway.

It won’t seem like a complete season at GSP without a new play from prolific 92-year-old Arthur Laurents (writer/director of recent Broadway revivals of “Gypsy” and “West Side Story”). Laurents’ name is important enough to entice Shirley Knight and Alison Fraser to co-star in his latest play, “Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are,” about a woman coping with a devastating loss, her overbearing mother-in-law, and the advances of a sexually persistent new suitor. Even more remarkable is that Laurents will be directing his own play, which opens the season on October 9 with previews beginning October 6.

What exactly is on the mind of David Saint, the artistic director of George Street, as he reads new plays and prepares for the new season? “How many are in the cast, how many sets will it need, will we get enhancement money from outside producers? We have to talk (referring to the GSP board) about how to get through this economy by doing co-productions,” Saint says, referring enthusiastically to “A Moon to Dance By,” a new play that he saw at the Pittsburgh Playhouse last February. Directed by Edwin Sherin and starring Tony award-winner Jane Alexander, Robert Cuccioli, and Gareth Saxe (directly from his performance in the title role of Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey), the play by Pittsburghian Thom Thomas revolves around Frieda Weekley, the often-scandalous widow of D.H. Lawrence. It begins performances on November 17.

Acclaimed choreographer/director Kathleen Marshall (“Grease,” “The Pajama Game” on Broadway) has recently been signed to stage “Calvin Berger,” a new family musical (winner of the 2007 Richard Rodgers Award), inspired by the Cyrano de Bergerac story. Saint, who has high hopes for this world-premiere musical set in a modern-day high school, states unequivocally, “My mission is to produce as many new plays as I can here at George Street, where audiences have come to expect being surprised.”

Crossroads

Crossroads Theater Company abuts the George Street Playhouse (which is next door to the State Theater) and gives the neighborhood an Off Broadway ambiance. Marshall Jones III, the Crossroads executive director (Ricardo Kahn continues to serve as artistic director), gets right down to the nitty-gritty, day-to-day operations. Exactly what power and/or influence does the executive branch have over the artistic? Jones, who is also a theater professor at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, says it isn’t a question of power but of collaboration. “Kahn and I are cut from the same cloth at Rutgers, had the same teachers, and we think alike.”

Jones has, in fact, has been taking care of business for the past two years at the 30-year-old Tony Award-winning company (Best Regional Theater 1999), and fully intends to make this a terrific and memorable year despite the economy and the uphill battle that Crossroads has faced since resurfacing in 2004. (It closed in 2000 due to financial difficulties.) Crossroads is somewhat unusual in that it has no full-time paid staff. “We don’t have a staff to cut,” Jones laughs and adds, “One of our funders was astonished to hear that we produced a full season last year with a couple of volunteers, three interns, plus Ricardo and me. You do what you have to do.”

Crossroads is probably doing even more than it has to do this year by offering four productions (last year there were three) including three world premieres. Jones emphasizes, “With four shows, we can keep our subscribers closer as a family.” Kahn is both the co-author (with Trey Ellis) and director of “Fly,” the season’s first world premiere, beginning October 1. Originally commissioned by the Lincoln Center Institute, “Fly” dramatizes the historic contribution made by the Tuskegee Airmen to the desegregation of the American military and furthering civil rights. Great singing is promised from “3 Mo’ Divas” in a theatrically staged concert conceived and directed by Marion J. Caffey. A new play, “Through the Night,” written and performed by Daniel Beaty, and “The Last Fall,” a romantic comedy by Stephanie Berry about a 50-something couple, complete the season.

Jones says Crossroads is inaugurating a new option for subscribers called “membership” at $50, for which they can purchase four additional tickets during the season for 50 percent off and four more for 25 percent off. This certainly will encourage friends, family, and neighbors to discover the new Crossroads.

In doing what they have to do, these theaters provide quality with affordability. Not burdened with trying to attract the tourist trade or sell-out 1,500 seats eight times a week, the great majority of our regional theaters offer an intimacy and a sense of community effort and involvement that is the very heart of the most palpable regional theater experience.

At the end of the day, Ballinger of Passage Theater is adamant about the need for theater to serve the community. “Theaters need to return to their communities as their number one obligation. It’s hard to serve two masters. We are either developing new work for a larger audience outside the interests of our own community, trying to move work into New York or whatever, or we are centered on our immediate community.”

While every theater’s artistic director is undoubtedly propelled by a personal mission or a discipline that may or may not be suitable to everyone’s taste, they all have a concerted talent for nurturing new plays and talent and bringing renewed vitality to the great dramatic literature of the past.

Without exception, the artistic directors with whom I spoke appear to not only be practical realists but also inveterate optimists. They all succeed in manifesting a season made from visions and dreams in which they unequivocally believe. In an era when pessimism might justifiably have the upper hand, optimism, instead, is the fuel that fires up all the artistic directors cited above. I am inspired by them about tomorrow. I hope you will also be and go out and see a show.

Actors’ NET

635 North Delmorr Avenue, Morrisville, 215-295-3694, www.actorsnetbucks.org.

Roebling: the Story of the Brooklyn Bridge. Mark L. Violi’s historical drama about Trenton’s Roebling family and their fight against all odds to build the Brooklyn Bridge. Through Sunday, October 11. Opens Friday, September 25.

Bristol Riverside

Theater

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.

The Philly Fan. Solo show performed by Tom McCarthy focuses on a journey through Philadelphia sports history. $29 to $37. Opens Thursday, September 17.

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.

The Philly Fan. Solo show performed by Tom McCarthy focuses on a journey through Philadelphia sports history. $29 to $37. Through Sunday, October 4. Opens Thursday, September 17.

I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Musical focuses on being single, dating, married, and heartbroken. Preview performances Tuesday and Wednesday, November 3 and 4. Through Sunday, November 22. $34 to $42. Opens Thursday, November 5.

St. James Parish Hall, 225 Walnut Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100, www.brtstage.org.

America Rising: Voices of Today’s Women. “I Am a Superhero” by Jennifer Tuckett. Staged reading, discussion, food, and live music. Sunday, October 11.

Bucks County

Playhouse

70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2041, www.buckscountyplayhouse.com.

Nunsense a Men. Musical with men portraying five nuns. $25. Now through Sunday, October 11.

Rent. Rock opera musical by Jonathan Larson. Through Sunday, October 11. $25. Opens Wednesday, September 23.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Musical. $25. Through Sunday, November 8. Opens Wednesday, October 14.

Rocky Horror Show. Through October 31. $25. Opens Friday, October 23.

The Producers. Musical. $25. Through Sunday, December 6. Opens Wednesday, November 11.

It’s a Wonderful Life. The Frank Capra movie adapted to the musical stage. $25. Through Sunday, December 20. Opens Wednesday, December 9.

Center Playhouse

35 South Street, Freehold, 732-462-9093, www.centerplayers.org.

I’m Not Rappaport. Staged reading of drama by Herb Gardner inspired by two elderly men. Free. Monday, October 26.

Frankie & Johnnie. Staged reading of drama by Terence McNally. Free. Monday, November 30.

Extremeties. Staged reading of drama by William Mastrosimone. Free. Monday, December 14.

George Street

Playhouse

9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717, www.gsponline.org.

Come Back, Come Back, Wherever You Are. Premiere of drama about love written and directed by Arthur Laurents. Through Sunday, November 1. $28 to $78. Opening night, Friday, October 9.

A Moon to Dance By. Jane Alexander, Robert Cuccioli, and Gareth Saxe in Thom Thomas drama about Frieda Weekley, the widow of D.H. Lawrence. Directed by Edwin Sherin. Through Sunday, December 13. $28 to $78. Opening night, Friday, November 20.

Kelsey Theater, Mercer County College

1200 Old Trenton Road, 609-570-3333, www.kelseytheatre.net.

Jekyll & Hyde. Dark musical by Cheng/Ferrara Productions. $16. Reception follows the opening night performance. Through Sunday, September 27. Opens Friday, September 18.

Hollywood Arms. Maurer Productions OnStage. $14. Through Sunday, October 11. Opens Friday, October 2.

Bus Stop. Drama with Yardley Players. $14. Through Sunday, October 25. Opens Friday, October 16.

Equus. Drama with PinnWorth Productions. $14. Through Sunday, November 8. Opens Friday, October 30.

The Producers. Musical with Pierrot Productions. $16. Through Sunday, November 22. Opens Friday, November 13.

Mason Gross

School of the Arts

New Theater, 85 George Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.

The Crucible. Drama by Rutgers Theater Company. Through Sunday, November 8. $25. Opens, Friday, October 30.

Levin Theater, George Street, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511, www.masongross.rutgers.edu.

Betrayal. Drama by Rutgers Theater Company. Through Sunday, December 10. $25. Opens Wednesday, December 2.

McCarter Theater

91 University Place, Princeton, 609-258-2787, www.mccarter.org.

Having Our Say. Drama by Eily Mann adapted from the book by Sadie and Bessie Delany with Amy Hill Hearth. In the Berlind Theater. Post performance discussion after the matinee on Sunday, September 27. Now through Sunday, October 18..

She Stoops to Conquer. Comedy about mistaken identities by Oliver Goldsmith. Directed by Nicholas Martin. Through Sunday, November 1. Previews Tuesday through Thursday, October 13 to 15. Opens Friday, October 16.

Roger Rees. “What You Will,” a one-man show includes Shakespeare soliloquies, anecdotes, and snippets of his life in the theater. Rees is known to television audiences as Robin Colcord on “Cheers,” Lord Marbury on “The West Wing,” and Dr. Colin Marlow on “Grey’s Anatomy.” $39 to $50. Tuesday, November 3.

A Christmas Carol. Holiday classic by Charles Dickens. $33 and up. Through Sunday, December 27. Opening night pre-show Fezziwig Party. Opens Thursday, December 10.

New Jersey

Performing Arts Center

Prudential Hall, Newark, 888-466-5722, www.njpac.org.

The Color Purple. Musical based on novel and film. $23 to $79. Through Sunday, December 27. Opens Wednesday, December 16.

Off-Broadstreet Theater

5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766, www.off-broadstreet.com.

A Nice Family Gathering. Comedy. $27.50 to $29.50. Through Saturday, October 24. Opens Friday, September 18.

The Thing About Men. Musical. $27.50 to $29.50. Through Saturday, December 19. Opens Friday, November 6.

Paper Mill Playhouse

Brookside Drive, Millburn, 973-376-4343, www.papermill.org.

Little House on the Prairie: The Musical. Melissa Gilbert, known as Laura on the television show, plays the role of Ma. $25 to $92. Directors notes at 6 p.m. in the art gallery on Wednesday, September 16. Conversation series at 6 p.m. on Thursdays, September 17 and 24 and October 1 and 8. Talk back series with the cast after the matinee on Saturday, October 10 Now through Saturday, October 10.

On the Town. Musical based on an idea by Jerome Robbins. Through Sunday, December 6. $56 to $84. Opens Wednesday, November 11.

Passage Theater

Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766, www.passagetheatre.org.

Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow. Drama about Ethel Waters features Demetria Joyce Bailey in the title role. $25. Preview performance on Thursday, September 17. Through Sunday, September 27. Opening night, Friday, September 18.

Blood: A Comedy. David Lee White’s comedy about faith, science, family, and hot pepper cheese cubes. $25. Preview performance on Thursday, November 5. Through Sunday, November 22. Opens Friday, November 6.

Holiday Musicale. Miche Braden and Mary Cleere Haran perform. $25. Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and 13.

Peddie School

Hightstown, 609-490-7550, www.peddie.org.

The Children’s Hour. Register. Through Thursday through Saturday, November 5 to 7.

Peddler’s Village

Routes and 202 and 263, Lahaska, PA, 215-794-4000.

The Addams Family Murder Mystery. Interactive show by Without a Cue Productions. $47.95. Through Saturday, December 26. Opens Friday, September 18.

Princeton University

Lewis Center, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-1500, www.princeton.edu/arts.

Happy Days. Samuel Beckett’s drama. $10. Through Thursday, October 29. Opens Friday, October 23.

God’s Country. Stephen Dietz’s drama. $10. Through Thursday, December 17. Opens Friday, December 11.

At McCarter Theater.

My Fair Lady. Musical. $10. Through Thursday, November 19. Opens Friday, November 13.

Shakespeare ’70

Kendall Hall, College of New Jersey, Ewing, 609-882-5979, www.shakespeare70.org.

A View from the Bridge. Arthur Miller’s tragic tale. $10. Post performance discussion on Friday, September 18. Through Sunday, September 27. Opens Thursday, September 17.

Shakespeare Theater

of New Jersey

F.M. Kirby Theater, Drew University, Madison, 973-408-5600, www.shakespearenj.org.

Hamlet. Shakespeare’s drama directed by Bonnie Monte features Gareth Saxe in the title role and Robert Cuccioli as Claudius. $29 to $70. Now through Sunday, October 11.

The Grapes of Wrath. Drama based on John Steinbeck’s novel. Through Saturday, November 21. $29 to $53. Opens Wednesday, October 21.

Twelfth Night. Shakespeare’s drama directed by Bonnie Monte. Through Sunday, January 3. $29 to $53. Opens Wednesday, December 2.

Somerset

Valley Players

Amwell Road, Hillsborough, 908-369-7469, www.svptheatre.org.

Nunsense. Musical comedy. $14. Through Sunday, October 11. Opens Friday, September 18.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Drama. $14. Through Sunday, November 15. Opens Friday, October 30.

It’s a Wonderful Life. Family drama. $14. Through Sunday, December 20. Opens Friday,

State Theater

15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469, www.statetheatrenj.org.

Beauty Shop. Drama by Shelly Garrett features a beauty shop under new management and audience participation. $22 to $57. Saturday, October 17.

State Theater Presents at Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469, www.statetheatrenj.org.

MacHomer. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” performed by a single actor features more than 50 voices of charactors from “The Simpsons.” $32. Through Friday, October 30. Opens Tuesday, October 27.

Theatre Intime

Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University, 609-258-1742, www.theatreintime.org.

Proof. David Auburn drama. $12. Through Saturday, October 3. Opens Thursday, September 24.

The 24-Hour Play Festival. Plays are written, rehearsed, and performed in 24 hours. Free admission. Sunday, October 4 and Saturday, October 10.

Venting. $12. Through Saturday, November 21. Opens Thursday, November 12.

Crime and Punishment. Based on Dostoyevsky’s novel. $12. Through Saturday, December 12. Opens Thursday, December 3.

Without a Cue

Productions

Mountain View Golf Club, 890 Bear Tavern Road, West Trenton, 609-538-0808, www.withoutacue.com.

The Falsettos Murder. Interactive murder mystery. Dinner and show. Register. $55. Friday, September 18.

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