Even without the scheduled appearance of playwright Austin Pendleton at a benefit performance for the company this week, Orson’s Shadow was still a daunting choice as the opening production of Deep Dish Theater’s new season. Last week we compared this potent backstage drama to Russell Lees’ political comedy Nixon’s Nixon, which Manbites Dog Theater triumphed with in the summer of 2004–that is, when the sweltering heat inside the theater didn’t compromise the play’s success.

At this point, that comparison should be qualified. Clearly, neither work is a pushover to produce. But of the two, Pendleton’s script is likely the more challenging. I do no disrespect to Derrick Ivey’s truly uncanny work in Nixon’s Nixon to observe that most men beyond a certain age can muster at least a temporary, haggard growl approximating, after all, one of the most impersonated men of the 1960s. Though Kissinger may not have been as widely mimicked–or mocked–still, his voice and manner are nearly as widely known among that same demographic.

In effect, Orson’s Shadow has us double Nixon‘s requirements, and then some. A producer must find actors able to convince an audience as four–not two–stars of stage and screen. As Orson Welles’ character alludes to on stage, relative obscurity also plays a role: If most guys in their 40s can momentarily fake a Nixon, how many of them know Laurence Olivier–that is, from anything beside Marathon Man? How many women actors will have seen Vivien Leigh in anything but Gone with the Wind? How many Americans have even heard of Joan Plowright?

Unfortunately the questions count, since the audience most likely to show for such a play unavoidably includes these artists’ fans. Judging by the murmurs during intermission, several were considerably less indulgent than myself–some, of the liberties the playwright took with the past; others, of those on the part of certain actors or the director.

This puts me in a curious position as a critic. For, although I know what I think about Orson’s Shadow, at this point, I am not certain I know what it means.

I know it’s laughable to expect Derrick Ivey–or anyone else–to absolutely convince us that he’s Orson Welles. The problem? I once “knew” the same thing about the role of a certain former chief executive–before I saw Nixon’s Nixon.

To be clear, Ivey’s work here does not match the achievement of that earlier role. While his physical acting–mannerisms and gestures–strongly persuaded, his voice did not on Friday night.

Does this mean he’s any lesser of an actor? Not necessarily. Did this qualify the success of the performance? To a degree, yes.

We sense it’s unfair to expect an actor to come out each time and match or exceed a role that was clearly one of the major performances of his career to date. And yet we hope–particularly once we know that greatness is truly possible. And we do have to comment when greatness isn’t fully realized–particularly when it is seen in other roles.

I refer here to Jeri Lynn Schulke’s transcendent work in the role of Vivien Leigh. By the time Ms. Schulke first appeared toward the end of Pendleton’s first act, you could sense the audience had already settled for a series of close approximations and truly noble efforts–along with serious snags in timing and blocking that occasionally turned static. We’d settled for Ivey’s Welles with the body but somewhat lacking the voice, Mark Filiaci as an Olivier with a narrower than useful emotional bandwidth, and a similarly troubled Jeffrey Scott Detwiler as the earnest London theater critic Kenneth Tynan. We’d also been already truly baffled by the nearly animatronic interpretation director Paul Frellick had arrived at here in his collaboration with noted actor Katja Hill in the role of Joan Plowright.

Then Leigh answered the phone when Olivier called. In that moment the audience saw Schulke as we’d never seen her before–as an actor who had dived so completely into a role that she left every habitual facial, vocal and physical gesture we’d come to expect from her behind. This was someone new.

My point is, the audience knew it. And, for the record, the audience always knows it. As one, we stilled and focused on the presence that just raised the level of achievement–and our expectations–on that stage.

Our region’s independent theater is clearly in the process of growing. Once, we couldn’t have come nearly as close as this work does to successfully staging Orson’s Shadow. The same holds true for All the King’s Men–parts one and two. And Angels in America. And Nixon’s Nixon.

Perhaps that’s why I think it makes the most sense to recognize this production as a milestone work–not so much for its admittedly incomplete accomplishments, but because it points out how far we’ve come in the past decade just as clearly as it indicates how far we’ve left to go.

As has happened on more than one occasion at Deep Dish, artistic reach still exceeds grasp. This should be taken as no recommendation–on any of our parts–to stop reaching. Clearly, this production dares much. Though imperfect, its gains remain considerable.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.