After Nearly Two Years, the Arden (Finally) Reopens

While other theaters have already mounted ambitious productions, the Old City mainstay had to wait till 2022 for its post-COVID comeback.

the arden theatre

The Arden Theatre, photographed by M. Kennedy / Visit Philadelphia / Photography by M. Kennedy / Visit Philadelphia

I still have the e-ticket sitting in my Philly Mag inbox. It was order number 472485. Two seats for the third preview of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Arden Theatre, on Saturday, March 14, 2020. My wife and I were going to leave the kids at home and make a date of it, popping into Fork before the 8 p.m. show for martinis, plates of Sweet Amalia oysters and octopus, and some of that olive oil cake I can’t stay away from. I had it all planned out. But the world had other plans.

The first preview of the Southern Gothic drama by Tennessee Williams was held on Thursday, March 12th. Normally, the first preview of an Arden show is pretty crowded. But in this case, with headlines about a weird virus bombarding us 24 hours a day, the house was less than a third of what it should have been, says Arden founder and producing artistic director Terry Nolen.

“That’s when I realized this was really serious,” he recalls. He immediately postponed all other performances. He thought there would be a two-week hiatus and that the 34-year-old company would soon be back to business as usual. Well, nearly two years later, the Arden will finally see live audiences again this month, with the same show that ended so abruptly in March 2020.

“The whole set is literally still sitting on the stage,” Nolen says with a laugh. That meant the Arden wasn’t affected by the ubiquitous supply-chain issues other theaters have faced when trying to source materials for and build their sets: “We haven’t moved a thing.”

All the other major theaters in town have already mounted ambitious post-COVID productions, from the Wilma to Walnut Street Theatre to the huge Hamilton show that recently wrapped at the Academy of Music. Hell, the Fringe Festival put up scores of shows in September. They even built a beach in a North Philly warehouse for capacity crowds.

So what took so long for the Arden to get back in business?

“We kept rescheduling shows,” Nolen says. “We rescheduled Streetcar four times. And we just didn’t know what was happening. To be honest, we still don’t know what’s happening. But we’ve reached out to our subscribers, and the vast majority have said they’re ready to be back together in the same room — carefully, of course — and we’re ready for them. We will see what happens.” — V.F.

A Look at the Rest of The Arden Theatre’s Season

R. Eric Thomas, writer of Backing Track, poses for a photo. / Photograph by Kap2ure Photography

Backing Track – February 17th through March 27th

A world premiere from satirist R. Eric Thomas (above), who honed his craft in Philly in the 2010s, this show tackles issues like gentrification and what it means to start over again after the loss of a loved one—but in a funny way. After Backing Track missed its originally scheduled debut at the Arden last year, Terry Nolen suggested they mount a virtual version. “Hell no,” Nolen recalls Thomas telling him. “I want those big laughs in the theater.”

School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls PlayMay 5th through June 12th

A group of schoolgirls in Ghana are best friends—that is, until some of them get a chance to compete for a spot in the upcoming Miss Universe pageant, with stakes that include scholarships and the chance to meet, ooh, Bobby Brown. Things get especially dicey when a mixed-race girl becomes a favorite. Talk of skin-bleaching and revenge ensues. The play was inspired by the 2004 Tina Fey movie Mean Girls, and we can’t wait to see it.

Into the Woods – June 2nd through July 3rd

Any heated debate over which musical by the late Stephen Sondheim is the best must include Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, and this 1980s classic that intertwines—quite darkly at times—characters and plots of some of the most famous Grimm fairy tales. Whatever you do, don’t watch the 2014 Disney version. It’s truly abominable.

Published as “The Arden (Finally) Reopens” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.