Beginning this weekend in Ambridge, you can see a play about Iron Mike Webster at the Iron Horse Theatre, and if you don’t have an Iron City or two almost immediately thereafter, there’s not much I can do for you.
Ross Howard’s “12:52 The Mike Webster Story” gets its world premiere Friday night in the cozy non-profit venue on Maplewood Avenue, and while the former Steeler icon’s tragic death in 2002 has sometimes obscured the more enduring framework of an inspirational life, the theater itself is a living narrative of determination and true Pittsburgh grit.
The brainchild of a native North Sider turned transplanted Californian named London Cain, the theater’s origin story is laced with serendipitous happenstances, including one the theater’s founder calls “an act of God.”
Still, the first thing I found myself saying to London Cain was that I wished my name were London Cain.
“Yeah I keep wanting to make up some story that my parents met in London or something, but it’s nothing too exciting,” Cain said of his own origin story. “I had two stepfathers and a biological dad so I went by some other last names at some times depending on whoever the father of the day was, but I had quite a few siblings and a lot of us had some pretty weird names; that’s just the way it worked in my family.”
Cain’s early years on the North Side coincided with his heroic Steelers not only ruling the world but spreading Pittsburgh’s blue-collar ethos like a gospel. A teacher who spent decades doing local theater in California, he’d return in 2010 for a teaching gig in the Moon Area School District, where he started a middle school drama program six years later.
One day while haunting his old neighborhood near the Modern Café on Western Avenue, he stopped into City Books.
“I asked about this book that just caught my eye, ‘Rust Belt Boy,’ by Paul Hertneky,” he said. “Turns out he grew up in Ambridge around the same time I was growing up on the North Side. The book has great stories of that time period, the history of the place and his own personal stories. I just found the whole area very interesting, like, ‘What is this Ambridge?’”
Ambridge turned out to be the place where Cain found a dilapidated former church, former bar, former church again. It was also the wholly unpromising place he’d pour his heart and soul and no doubt some considerable cash into trying to create a storage area for some theater equipment and props. But it might, in his dreams, morph into a rehearsal space for his drama students, especially after their school program had been canceled.
At the end of the school year, the teachers commonly arranged a social. When Cain arrived for one a couple of years ago, no teachers were there. Thinking he was either the first one to arrive or had failed to get the memo on a change of venue, Cain sat down next to a stranger who started chatting with him over beers.
This is the “act of God” part.
“I was talking about what I was doing at the theater, and this guy, the only other person in the place, says, ‘That sounds interesting. I’m a carpenter; I’d like to help you with that.’ He ended up becoming probably my best friend, and we worked on the place for two years, every weekend, every summer, every free moment we’d go down there and just work. Doug May is his name. His kids went to Moon. We still work on it to this day.”
Thus London and Doug and the other champions of the Iron Horse Theatre initiative brought an arts venue to Ambridge, which has tried mostly everything else over the years in its ongoing revitalization efforts.
The Iron Horse, it happens, isn’t just for thespians. It hosts musicians and comics as well, and now it’s hosting its first world premiere.
Cain worked with Howard on the script for the Webster play, which they thought would open at the New Hazlett Theater in June of last year, but there’s this virus, maybe you’ve heard. The Iron Horse advises you wear a mask if you’re not vaccinated.
“We have a good ventilation system and we have air purifiers running all the time,” Cain said. “We’re a small venue, 60 people.”
There’s a show for sponsors and their guests Thursday night, followed by a nine-show run over three weeks.
“I want people to be inspired by it,” he said about the play, even though he could have been talking about the theater. “When the theater company was built, from the ground up literally, I always wanted our stories to be about grit and determination. I always admired the human spirit, the fighting spirit, even when the battle is lost, you fight to the end.
“I think that’s what the audience will get from this. Mike kept fighting to the end, he never gave up; he was trying to do something not just for himself, he was trying to do something for players who were suffering like he was suffering.”
Sounds like one of those artistic vehicles that should make Pittsburgh feel good about itself, and Ambridge should feel it too.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter: @genecollier