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The play's the thing for husband-and-wife team

Walls have ears, as many have learned.

And, of course, that phenomenon can turn an innocent event into a grapevine flash.

Actors T.J. and Susan Gill were sitting in a restaurant, rehearsing their lines for a play they were in together: Same Time, Next Year. It's a comedy about a man and woman not married to each other who enjoy a yearly assignation.

So the Gills were practicing. The particular scene called for the couple to discuss their respective spouses. Those who recall the play know that some of the lines are, well, fresh and provocative.

"We thought we were doing it under our breath," T.J. Gill said. "But someone Susan knew from work was sitting two tables away. Two weeks later, she found out about the play.

"She said, "I'm so relieved. I thought you two were talking about your affairs.' "

Such are the experiences of a couple whose mutual hobby lends itself to practicing virtually anywhere and any time.

The Gills, who are husband and wife, have appeared together in 24 plays, many times in lead roles and often as a married couple. Starting Thursday, they will, in a sense, play themselves as a husband-and-wife acting team in the St. Petersburg Little Theater production of Moon Over Buffalo, directed by Tom Costello.

It will be the Gills' 25th performance together. "It's about an acting couple who've spent their lives in the theater, and the ups and downs," T.J. Gill said. "It's a perfect commentary on our 25 plays together. We've been hoping for six months this one could be our 25th."

The Gills' St. Petersburg Little Theater roots are deep. They met in the lobby in 1981 while auditioning for Neil Simon's Chapter Two. Both had colds. "I offered her my Vicks bottle," said T.J.

A little more than two years later, they were married _ on the theater's stage.

T.J. had memorized the vows but forgot a section. "I had to call for lines," he said, using the actors' term for a prompt.

"I've never felt him shake like he did that day," Susan said.

So, do they practice a lot around the house?

Susan: "Do we ever. Getting ready for work. In the car. In fact, there have been times when we've had trouble learning some passages, and we've gotten in the car. It's good, uninterrupted concentrated time."

T.J.: "Between here and New Port Richey, you can learn one act."

Moon Over Buffalo features a swordfighting sequence between the couple. They have epees at home to use in practice.

"We've raised some eyebrows in the back yard," T.J. said.

He noted that Susan's son, Tom Jay, a professional jouster on the Renaissance festival circuit, taught them a few combat moves.

But both were involved in drama long before meeting one another. Susan began in high school, T.J. since grammar school. As he tells it, he told the Walt Disney story, Song of the South, to his class _ and the teacher liked it so well he was asked to repeat it in another classroom.

"So I've been on tour since I was 8 years old," he said.

When not on stage or rehearsing, Susan Gill works for the retail advertising department of the St. Petersburg Times; T.J. is project coordinator for the WordBridge Playwrighting Laboratory at Eckerd College.

This summer, Susan is bound for a four-week choral festival in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, while T.J. will go to Dayton, Tenn., and a re-enactment of the famed Scopes monkey trial. He'll play the part of William Jennings Bryan.