Had it really been that long–over three years–since theater had a regular home at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter? Look at the present condition of the stage. Look at its tattered curtain. The answer is yes. True, guest companies have occasionally darkened the door of the Earl Wynn Theater in recent years. A memorable Flying Machine production of The Memory of Water played in April 2002; a visually sumptuous (but dramatically problematic) Twelfth Night from Open Door Theater ran the winter before. And we’ve noticed and encouraged the fits and starts of the past year: one-nighters like the 2003 and 2004 Play Slams, and the promising–but still uneven and underfunded–international 10-minute play festivals and February “Shorts.”

Still, we look to theaters like the ArtsCenter for regular–and fully integrated–seasons of full-length productions. Given the ArtsCenter’s scope and size, at least some of them should be generated in-house.

But those have been absent in Carrboro since the ArtsCenter Community Theater’s radically uneven tenure was brought to a close in March 2001. The end for that group came after a final season largely spent in artistic receivership, during which outside directors and co-producers including Wordshed Productions and Bold Maids were brought in to salvage previous mismanagement.

No resident company has taken its place in the ensuing three and a half years. That absence–and the absence of regularly scheduled theatrical seasons in the Earl Wynn Theater–has been particularly inexplicable given the number of independent companies who are doing superior work in the region without a permanent home to call their own. (Please see our Aug. 25 Annual Manual guide for a convenient–and still incomplete–list.)

Is all of that about to change? Possibly so. Over the past year, the ArtsCenter brought in Theater Orange director Lynden Harris to clearly articulate the center’s theatrical mission–something that’s gone missing in recent years.

Her mixed opening bids–the 10 by 10 International Ten-Minute Play Festival and the second-annual Play Slam–came in during the summer months.

Her first season at the helm kicks off this weekend, with a particularly appropriate benefit performance.

The artists appearing in the ArtsCenter’s 30th Anniversary Extravaganza this Saturday are appearing pro bono. As a result, all proceeds from the show will go to repairing and extending a stage now in disrepair, replacing the ragged curtains that hang above it and funding four separate season-length theatrical initiatives.

The first series of performances, Front and Center, will feature a combination of new productions and partnerships with noted regional companies restaging recent memorable works. After J. Chachula reprises Underneath the Lintel Oct. 14-24, Company Carolina stages Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Nicole Farmer and John Murphy encore with Sea Marks, a standout from last season.

Still under wraps at this point: the April 14-24 mainstage world premiere of a new work–by a local playwright. We’ll all stay tuned for that one.

OffCenter, the second series, features edgier, more experimental works. It’s the home of 10-minute play festivals and slams, seasonal appearances by Transactors Improv Company–and the February world premiere of We’re Not the Tourists You’re Looking For. That’s the one-man show by monologist and recent L.A. transplant Jesse Kalisher, who’s contributed his offbeat travel narratives to public radio’s The Savvy Traveler and NPR’s Day to Day.

ArtsCenter revitalizes its family theater programming with Generation Next, which presents Rags to Riches Theater, The Taradiddle Players and EBZB production’s David zumBrunnen in the holiday show The Night Before Christmas Carol in dates from September through February.

Perhaps the most intriguing set of performances, though, will be found in Hidden Voices, a series in which ArtsCenter-affiliated artists will go into underrepresented communities and work with them to develop and tell their own stories. The Women’s Prison Theater Company begins the series Nov. 19 with their new show, From the Inside Out. In following months, partnerships with Carrboro’s El Centro Latino, Duke’s Student Action with Farmworkers, and the formerly homeless at Raleigh’s Healing Place will take the stage March 4 and May 20-21.

Saturday night’s 10-act extravaganza includes a preview of Kalisher’s new work, Durham Savoyards’ Ann Marie Thomas and Chris Newlon’s excerpt from The Pirates of Penzance, Transactors Improv Company, a flamenco dance exhibition by Rafael Lopez-Barrantes, 2004 Play Slam winner Jerry Oster’s latest works, Meredith Sause’s take on Edna St. Vincent Millay–and National Hollerin’ Champion Tony Peacock.

There will be no shortage of theatrical talent on stage Saturday night. But given the ambitious nature of the plans now in development in Carrboro, such a stellar evening is perhaps still best taken as a promissory note; more a statement on the times ahead than ones just past.

**1/2 I Wonder, ReTodd Productions–In this dark urban comedy, Todd Harmon scores points for sheer audacity with his attempt to transplant Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead into inner-city Killadelphia just in time for the Tupacalypse. To be fair, this first play has a host of first-play woes: a logorrheic know-it-all for a central character, meandering scenes, and a conclusion one step removed from “I’ve got it! They all have heart attacks at the end!” Plus we really don’t know why Brandon the Af-Am slacker stays with wise-guy cracker Justin, one of the more abrasive characters we’ve seen this year.

Now, why Harmon shouldn’t give up: In between stock characters and situations, every so often he hauls off and nails a moment from the big city. As long as we’re making requests, I want to see every actor in this largely unfamiliar cast again, including leads Matthew J. Edwards and Charles “Skip” Wright, and Rahsaan Kerns and Gina Maria Destra, who were memorable in a series of supporting roles from a gay UPS man to an ancient Italian woman apparently on the make.