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How I learned to stop worrying and love the theater (again)

Globe Staff, Adobe

The performance was just about to start last weekend at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater when a man not far from me suddenly sneezed, pulled down his mask, noisily blew his nose, and added a loud cough for good measure.

I felt a spasm of alarm, then a flash of anger, and then . . . nothing.

Rather than seething for the next 90 minutes while mentally calculating how many aerosol particles were floating in the air, I sat back and enjoyed the show.

That “nothing” sensation has been the most surprising part of returning to indoor theater this fall. What’s abnormal about this fall theater season in Boston is how . . . normal it feels.

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A year ago at this time, I wasn’t certain when, or if, I’d ever feel comfortable sitting in a crowded theater again to watch a live performance. This is a problem when that’s part of your job description.

Sure, being a drama critic is a great gig in non-pandemic times, but all of a sudden, I felt like a canary hired to work in a coal mine. (”So what do you do for a living?” “I attend super-spreader events three or four nights a week. And what do you do?”)

Then, blessedly, vaccines became available. And then, crucially, theaters in Boston laid down the law before reopening, announcing that proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test were required for attendance at indoor performances, and masks had to be worn at all times inside the venues.

With every face covered by a mask, the spectacles offstage have rivaled the ones onstage this fall, amounting to a kind of theater all their own. During intermission at “Hadestown” a couple of weeks ago, the majestic lobby at the Citizens Bank Opera House looked like it was hosting an extraterrestrial convention.

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But from both a public health and a business standpoint, the decision to make mask-wearing, negative tests, and vaccinations the price of admission has been a strategically smart one. By adopting stringent measures, theaters sent a reassuring message to rational people that safety was a non-negotiable priority — and that the kind of irrational people who have worsened the pandemic would not be indulged in their selfish behavior.

In effect, theaters were offering a bargain to audiences: Make this tiny sacrifice — no sacrifice at all, really —and you regain access to live performance and all the joys it can deliver.

Still, there were psychological hurdles for playgoers to clear as performances resumed. Theater, which has always required the suspension of disbelief, now also required the suspension of anxiety.

As I settled into my seat Sept. 1 at the Calderwood Pavilion for the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Hurricane Diane,” marking the return of live indoor theater in Boston after a year and a half, I wondered whether I’d be so distracted thinking about the coronavirus that I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on what was happening onstage.

Many other spectators were doubtless wrestling with a similar dilemma. It amounted to a test of our collective will: Could we surrender to theater magic as we had done in the Before Time, letting it draw us in and transport us to another place?

An affirmative answer began to take shape the instant actor Rami Margron strode onstage and proclaimed the play’s opening line: “I have returned, and it begins.”

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That triggered uproarious cheers from the crowd, stopping the show for a couple of minutes. The line could have been scripted for that moment (it wasn’t; Madeleine George’s play had premiered before the pandemic). To the theater-starved audience inside the Calderwood, those six simple words registered as both a rallying cry and a symbolic starting point.

In the months that followed, a let’s-do-this spirit has been palpable in Boston theaters, as if audiences are keeping a promise they made to themselves during quarantine. It’s been made easier by the fact that most productions so far have been one-acts with no intermission, and theaters have made more of an effort to start on time rather than leave audiences cooling their heels. Venue staffers have efficiently handled the vaccination-card checks, keeping the lines moving.

Show after show, I’ve felt much more at ease than I would have expected last year. (I haven’t, so far, quite reached the same comfort zone when it comes to eating at indoor restaurants.) We humans are an adaptable species.

Let’s stipulate here that the pandemic is far from over. Winter is coming, to borrow a phrase. Social distancing has been virtually nonexistent before and after the shows I’ve attended. A spate of breakthrough COVID cases could yet undermine the theater industry’s precarious comeback. If theaters move prematurely to lift mask and vaccine requirements, they will invite, and deserve, an ocean of empty seats.

Here’s hoping none of that happens, because the two-way warmth between audiences and actors over the past few months has been an uplifting thing to see and to feel.

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During the industry’s long pause, virtually every theater professional I spoke with told me — with varying degrees of conviction and persuasiveness — that people would feel a hunger to gather again together, and that theater would be essential to feeding that hunger. That appears to be true. After so many months watching, and performing, shows on Zoom, people seem happy to be back, on both sides of the footlights. Standing ovations have been frequent and fervent (although Boston audiences have long been overly generous with standing O’s).

In post-show remarks after last weekend’s performance of “The Half-Life of Marie Curie,” about the legendary physicist and the confidante who supported her in a time of personal crisis, actress Debra Wise told the Central Square audience: “It’s so good to connect with you, in a play about friendship.”

Good to connect with you too, Debra. Oh, and Mr. Sneezy? Next time, please step outside.


Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeAucoin.