Success of the Lamb's : Stage: The Christian theater group continues to surprise and prosper as it enters its 20th year.

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Lamb's Players Theatre, now entering its 20th year, is a Christian theater, a successful theater and a critically acclaimed theater with a range of offerings that run the gamut from Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" to "The Diary of Anne Frank" to Richard Brinsley Sheridan's romantic comedy "The Rivals." There are times when this trinity of attributes confuses and confounds religious audiences, secular audiences and even the Lamb's own core ensemble.

For David Cochran Heath, an actor who joined the company in 1980, this puzzle was part of the attraction. He saw his first Lamb's show in 1972 when it toured a contemporary version of a medieval morality play, "The Hound of Everyman," to Cal State Fullerton, where he attended school.

"The performance was the opposite of what I thought of as genteel and Christian," Heath said during a rehearsal break of "The Rivals," which opens the company's 1991 season tonight at its National City home. Heath plays Lucius O'Trigger, a foolish, old suitor for the hand of lovely heiress Lydia Languish.

"I was so taken in by the show and the fact that two-thirds of the things they were saying were kind of Christian but kind of not. I expected people to start heckling, but they didn't. I thought it was impossible that these guys could be Christians and do such great theater."

Sometimes, patrons who expect Lamb's to be more "genteel" do object to some of the material they see on stage. The profanity in "Amadeus" upset some audience members, although, curiously, they were not bothered by Salieri's self-proclaimed war with God.

The murders in "Ten Little Indians" didn't evoke objections, but the taking of a drink of what was supposed to be alcohol did. In a post-performance discussion of "Talley's Folly," Lanford Wilson's poignant Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the courtship of a Christian woman by a Jewish man, one irate observer asked how the producing artistic director, Robert Smyth, and his wife, associate director Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who played the parts, could promote work with such a theme.

Such questions make Robert Smyth, who joined the company in 1976, sigh and shake his head.

"I think a lot of people come at us with a lot of preconceived ideas that we don't fit," Smyth said in his modest cubicle of an office. "They see Christianity as a list of do's and don'ts. We show a sense of deference to our audience, but we're not a church theater. We deal with issues of integrity and ethics. But we're not a place where people can come and see G-rated fluff."

The ensemble itself, whose denominations range from Catholic to Southern Baptist, doesn't see itself as G-rated. The company welcomes and supports married couples both as ensemble and associate guest artists. Indeed, most of the people who work there are married to someone else in the company.

But that doesn't mean everything "is Disneyland," as Smyth puts it. They live with fights and divorces and custody arrangements just like other people.

Nine years ago, Smyth's then-wife, Mary, at the time a company member, left him for another married member of the ensemble. Smyth got over the pain sufficiently to ask Mary and her new husband, Lance Kidd, to appear as guest artists on stage with him in "Much Ado About Nothing" at Lamb's two years ago.

But, although he could accept the couple's presence on stage, some of his subscribers could not.

"We had a couple of subscription ticket holders who dropped their tickets because they came on stage," said Smyth. "I said, 'Look, it's me, this is my choice. If Christianity is a symbol of anything, it's a symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. I wouldn't have put myself, Deborah and the company through that if I didn't think it would work.' "

Even auditioning actors, who are neither questioned about their faith nor proselytized by anyone in the theater, sometimes don't know what to make of the Christian label.

Associate director Kerry Cederberg Meads, who plays the servant, Lucy, in "The Rivals," was casting recently for "The Boys Next Door," which she's directing for an April 19 opening as the next play in the season.

One of the actors didn't find out until he was at the theater that the company described itself as Christian. He immediately began apologizing to Meads for the audition piece he had prepared because it contained sexual innuendoes.

"I said, 'Don't worry,' " Meads recalled with a laugh. " 'Christians have sex, too.' "

Still, despite scaring off people who see them as too religious and those for whom they aren't religious enough, Lamb's draws a big enough audience to keep its $1.1-million annual budget in the black. That achievement is especially remarkable when one considers that most San Diego theaters finished in the red last year.

In addition, the company neither solicits nor receives government grants, which are the lifeblood of most nonprofit regional theaters in today's economically depressed times. Smyth said he doesn't want government money because "we don't want anyone saying, 'Where's the separation of church and state?' "

Lamb's is also the only company in San Diego to maintain a staff acting ensemble, a practice thought to make little financial sense in today's theater world. Of its 19-member staff, 15 perform, eight of whom have a primary function as actors. Lamb's pays its staff actors above Equity scale and pays guest artists professional theater scale, even though the company is non-Equity and will continue to be because Smyth doesn't care for what he calls "the adversarial relationship" that comes with unions.

Lamb's is in a strong financial position: Thirty percent of its money comes from private foundations and donors; the rest is from the box office. Last year, patrons filled the 180-seat theater to 91% capacity. And, Smyth said, the company not only is about to pay off the mortgage on its home by the end of the year, but he and marketing and art director Christian Turner are even talking about expansion.

It's a busy time for the theater. Running simultaneously with "The Rivals" will be its production of "Cotton Patch Gospel," playing March 7-30 at the Lyceum Space at Horton Plaza. In addition, Smyth is planning to mount a children's theater show, "Puff the Magic Dragon," at the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon in July. If successful, Lamb's may branch out into regular children's programming.

Last year, the company's two Christmas shows, "A Festival of Christmas" and "Dickens, Dining & Song," did so well that Smyth is considering the addition of a third show this year.

All this is not to suggest that the company lives lavishly. A tour of the National City theater is brief because the space, which was once a Christian Science church, is just 4,000 square feet. Offices by day become dressing rooms by night. The costume shop can fit three or four at a time, if hoops on the women's 18th-Century-style dresses are not too large.

And none of the actors in the company just act. Some wear two, three or more hats as costume designers, lighting designers, set designers, photographers, carpenters, administrators. Anyone may handle the box office or public relations as needed. Being a jack-of-all-trades is not only encouraged, it's required.

Such practices recall Lamb's origins as a communal, hippie-style theater in Spring Valley in 1972. The company, founded in 1971 by Steve Terrell, a theater professor and actor at Bethel College in St. Paul, Minn., moved to San Diego in 1972, where Terrell grew up, and had its first permanent home in an old machine shop in El Cajon in 1975.

In 1976, with the encouragement of Robert Smyth (who became artistic director in 1980), Lamb's purchased its existing quarters in National City.

In 1978, its first year as a resident company, Lamb's had 300 subscribers. Thirteen years and 20 world premieres later, it has close to 3,000.

The company has had its struggle with finances over the years. Part of its growing pains occurred in 1985-86, when performers went from having to raise their own stipend from the community to paid staff positions. In 1987, Lamb's cut back on staff size and its touring program until finances stabilized.

Now, although the company still counts on a warm reception for each of its shows to continue its stability, it seems to be on firm footing both commercially and critically.

One of the company's admirers is Craig Noel, executive producer of the Old Globe Theatre.

"I think their standards are very, very high," Noel said. "I don't think it's slanted in such a way that one is aware what group is doing it. I had to be told that it was a group that was started by Christian morality.

"I think they have good artistic leadership, and you soon realize that this is a very conscientious group of people with talent and imagination and convictions . . . and that doesn't happen every day."

Lamb's Players Theatre, 500 Plaza Blvd., National City, will present "The Rivals" through March 30. Shows begin at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and additional matinees at 2 p.m. March 10 and 17. Weekday shows Wednesday and Thursdays begin at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $14-18. Call 474-4542 for more information.

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