By JOHN T. WARD
Robert M. Rechnitz, who co-founded Red Bank’s Two River Theater with his wife, Joan, died at his home Saturday, the theater announced Wednesday. He was 89 years old.
The couple, residents of the Locust section of Middletown, founded the nonprofit theater at Monmouth College (now Monmouth University) in 1994, moved it to Manasquan several years later and then to a new, $15 million home on Bridge Avenue in Red Bank in May, 2005.
In a Facebook post, Mayor Pasquale Menna called Rechnitz “a champion of good in our community.
“He shared his vision with all of us as he and Joan founded the Two River Theater,” Menna wrote. “His philanthropy has touched countless lives and will continue for generations in the future.”
Rechnitz was born in Pueblo, Colorado, and discovered a love of theater while in high school, according to an obituary issued by the theater.
“I went with my mother to see the national tour of The Glass Menagerie in Pueblo, where I grew up, and the set amazed me,” he later recalled, according to the obituary. “As the actor spoke, the brick wall began to dissolve. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The theatricality of it all knocked me out. I would have been about 15 and I just adored it.”
Rechnitz reflected on the play’s impact on him in a 2008 interview with redbankgreen, when he directed a Two River Theater production of the Tennessee Williams classic. “It’s what ruined my life!” he said.
From the obituary:
He received his B.S. degree in Speech and Theater at Northwestern University and an M.A. degree with Honors in English Literature from Columbia University. Rechnitz originally planned to be an actor: at Northwestern, he studied with the legendary acting teacher Alvina Krause. Upon graduating he moved to New York to pursue acting, enrolling in classes with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando were among his classmates. “Because I started out as an actor, I used to say that playwriting was a great challenge, and directing is always pleasurable, but the only thing that really matters is acting,” he said in a 2019 interview. “As a professor, I understood the act of performing in front of a classroom.”
After receiving his Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Colorado, Boulder, Rechnitz came east to take a job as Assistant Professor of English at Monmouth College, now University. For the following 35 years, during which time he was promoted to Full Professor, he taught courses in American Literature, World Literature, English Drama, seminars in T.S. Eliot, Herman Melville, American Romanticism and American Realism, among other topics. He published critical articles and short stories, a number of which were later included in anthologies. During this time, he also directed student productions in the Theatre Department at Monmouth, including The Physicists, Twelfth Night, A View from the Bridge, and The Matchmaker.
In the summer of 1980 Bob and Joan produced four plays in Milford, Pennsylvania, in an old, vaudeville-era theater. Then, in 1994, they founded the Two River Theater, which is today one of the preeminent theaters in the region and a leader in the national theater community.
In its first two and a half seasons, with Bob as Producing Artistic Director, Two River played in the Woods Theatre at Monmouth College. The company then moved to a larger space, the Algonquin Theater in Manasquan, New Jersey, where it played for eight years. During that time Joan and Bob searched for space and finally secured the Blaisdell Lumber Company’s property on Bridge Avenue in Red Bank, New Jersey.
There, with the design firm Hardy, Holtzman and Pfeiffer, they planned for and oversaw the building of the state-of-the-art, two-theater complex which is Two River’s permanent home. In 2005 Bob directed the opening production in the new building, the classic American comedy You Can’t Take It with You, to rave reviews, “some for the play, some for the building.”
Among the other notable productions he directed at Two River are Curse of the Starving Class, True West, A View from the Bridge, The Glass Menagerie, Thieves’ Carnival, Uncle Vanya, American Buffalo, Barefoot in the Park and The Belle of Amherst.
In 2016, Two River produced Lives of Reason, a world-premiere play written by Rechnitz and his friend and colleague Kenneth Stunkel, under the direction of Jonathan Fox, Two River’s former Artistic Director. Like its authors, many of the characters in the play seek solace in literature; through it, they achieve a greater understanding of the universe, and our place in it.
During their nearly 60 years in Monmouth County, Bob and Joan have given generously in support of arts and culture, with a particular emphasis on arts education, environmental stewardship, health care and social services, and Jewish and humanitarian causes. Bob was an active member of a number of organizations including serving as a board member for several local non-profits. In addition, Bob was a longtime board member of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
He was the recipient of numerous awards, honors, commendations, and accolades. He took special delight in being named, at age 70, one of “20 New Jerseyans to Watch” by The Star-Ledger.
In addition to his wife, Rechnitz is survived by three children: Emily Rechnitz, married to John Paladino; Adam Rechnitz, who owns the Triumph Brewing Company next door to the theater, and his wife, Elizabeth Fordi; and Joshua Rechnitz. He is also survived by his grandchildren, Max and Flora Paladino and Esme Rechnitz.
A public memorial service will be held at Two River Theater on Sunday, November 17th at noon. Additional details will be announced on the theater’s website. In lieu of flowers, gifts may be made to the charity of your choice.