Richie and Heather Akers of Cedar Rapids fell in love with theater, then with each other through theater.

Now, a week before Valentine's Day, they're taking both loves to the next stage, turning a one-time movie theater in Uptown Marion into a live venue for their new Giving Tree Theater troupe - one that will give back to the community by donating a portion of proceeds to local human services organizations.

Built as the Garden Theatre in 1985, the building at 752 10th St. has been rennovated to add a stage and comfy cabaret, traditional and living room seating on the main floor and on raised "box seat" platforms.

The space and the theater debuts on Jan. 30 with Tennessee Williams' classic drama, "The Glass Menagerie." Next up is the dark comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace" from March 6 to 22, followed by the drama of "The Miracle Worker" from April 10 to 26 and the hilarity of Neil Simon's "Barefoot in the Park" from May 15 to 31.

"When we sat down around the kitchen table to select our opening show, we knew we wanted something that was story-driven, with a small cast that resonated with us personally. The Glass Menagerie fit the bill," the Akers said.

The intent, the couple said, was to recruit "a director that had credibility in the community and was a 'heavy hitter.' " for their first show.

Though the theater will operate as a for-profit organization, with assistance from Fractured Atlas, a national organization that advises artists on everything from fundraising and managing risk to building audiences and beefing up business skills, Richie is the only paid staff meember. He stepped down from his sales and marketing position at Theatre Cedar Rapids to manage the theatre.

They chose Foundation 2 as the recipient of proceeds from this production. The idea was to pay directors and designers under a paid contract, but recruit volunteer actors and technicians.

The couple deviated slightly from the plan, though, for this first show. Heather, who also works in organizational development at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids, took on the title of director for Giving Tree Theatre's innaugural show.

It wasn't a role she was immediately sure she could fill, she writes in the notes that will appear in the playbill for the show.

After rereading William's play - which centers around a flawed family of four - though, she realized she was perfect for the job.

"The Glass Menagerie is about a family who loves each other. Lots of people or reviewers say a flawed family, but I'd like to see one that's not," she writes. "These characters aren't fragile or strong, they are both."

Even more importantly, Akers writes, she was prepared to direct the play because "I know these people. I have lived in this house and I have made these mistakes and I owe it to the people I love to do better. To show that people aren't extremes and that there is more love hidden in this family than you might first think."

The couple chose to open their theater in Marion, based on the success of Theatre Cedar Rapids' post-flood site at Lindale Mall, which now houses Planet X Fun Center.

"It seems like there's a need in that area - and more specifically Marion - for more arts, for theater, for other things, so we were looking in that area," Richie Akers said.

It was love at first sight at the Uptown site.

"It was an 'aha' moment of, 'Of course this is going to work here.'"


WHAT: "The Glass Menagerie"

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday Jan. 30 to Feb. 15

WHERE: Giving Tree Theatre, 752 10th St., Marion