They say you can't go home again, but Lisa Powers is going to try. More than 20 years ago, Powers came of age as an actor at American Stage. ¶ "It was a home for me," she said last week. "I was raised there." ¶ Powers stars in 2.5 Minute Ride, the one-woman show by Lisa Kron that opens Friday. It will be Powers' first performance with the company since appearing in a play called Desdemona's Handkerchief in 1997. ¶ In the 1980s and '90s, Powers was one of the busiest and best actors in productions at the theater, then enjoying a lively, successful period under the longtime leadership of a charismatic husband-wife team, Victoria Holloway and John Berglund. And when Holloway and Berglund moved on, they appointed Powers as the artistic director. She distinguished herself almost immediately by masterminding a blockbuster production for the theater's annual park show, a punk rock version of Macbeth by Joe Popp that people still talk about.
But then Powers fell afoul of a company in transition, as well as her own inexperience in managing an arts organization, and left the theater she was so closely identified with. Her departure was followed by several years of instability, as successive administrations struggled to find a footing. Only with the arrival of current producing artistic director Todd Olson in 2003 did a turnaround take hold.
"It seems so long ago and far away," Powers said. "This place has changed and grown so much. It's a totally different vibe."
Only a few people remain on the American Stage staff from Powers' days. The company has moved into a new theater as part of the downtown campus of St. Petersburg College, and the old space is a nightclub.
Powers, 49, has changed, too. After leaving the theater, she moved to New York, got a master's degree in drama therapy from New York University, and worked for six years at a hospital in the Bronx. Now married, she moved back to the bay area several years ago and has continued as a drama therapist, as well as teaching theater at the University of South Florida.
Her return to American Stage feels like coming full circle to Powers. "It took me a long time to be able to hear something about this place and not have that cringe factor," she said. "There's a part of it that's really healing for me. No more cringe. And why should there be? Nobody here knows me anymore. The only person it was really affecting was me."
With 2.5 Minute Ride, Powers is performing professionally for the first time since being in a production of Chekhov's Three Sisters at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival in 2001. "It has been a long stretch," she said.
To perform Kron's play is a challenge. "It's crazy, right?" Powers said. "To do a whole solo show. My biggest fear? Memorization. A decade is a long time between memorizing. I never used to have a problem with that. Now it is a little bit different. So I started early on this."
The play, from a 38-page script dense with type, is performed without intermission. The character, named Lisa ("It's by Lisa, with Lisa and about Lisa," Powers said), is a lesbian artist whose father left Nazi Germany as a teenager and whose grandparents were killed in Auschwitz. In a kind of slide show, Lisa tells stories about her family, touching on subjects such as growing up Jewish in the Midwest and a trip she took with her father to a concentration camp.
"This is the style of theater that I enjoy," Powers said. "I like the direct connection to the audience. I always feel a connection to the audience, but there's something about that fourth wall being totally gone, which is really scary and really wonderful, and I like that."
Olson is directing 2.5 Minute Ride, which substituted for another play previously announced on the American Stage 2011-12 season. He did not know Powers except by reputation, and got in touch with her on Facebook last fall about playing the role.
"I knew about Lisa's situation, once removed, and people always spoke about how magnificent she was on stage," he said. "I've always thought this one day might happen. I needed a woman of a certain maturity and gravitas, and just started thinking of Lisa more, and finally reached out."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.