September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

ON HIS FIRST VISIT TO LONDON IN 1949, American actor Sam Wanamaker found one thing baffling: No taxi driver knew the way to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the historic stage where many of the Bard’s plays were first performed. Only later did Wanamaker discover why. There was no such theater—and hadn’t been for 300 years. Where it once stood, there was only a plaque on the wall of a tapped-out brewery.

Undiscouraged, Wanamaker set out to bring the past to the present. Though he died at 74 of prostate cancer in December 1993, his vision lived on. Last month, Shakespeare’s words rang again from the rebuilt Globe’s oak galleries as Wanamaker’s dream became a reality. With an opening performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the famed playhouse was back in business only 200 yards west of its original site along the River Thames.

The obsession that restored it began soon after Wanamaker returned to London with his wife and two children (he later had a third child) in the early ’50s and, fearing he would be blacklisted for his left-wing politics back in the States, chose to stay on. He formed the Globe Playhouse Trust in 1970 to raise money for a new theater and rode out recessions, building delays, even storms; he liked to scale a tall tent at the site to clear away rainwater. “That’s my image of him, on top of the tent, bailing water,” says his actress-daughter Zöe, 47, a star of TV’s original Prime Suspect. “He was just in love with this project.”

Many details of the new Globe are authentic. Like the original—built in 1599, gutted by fire in 1613 and closed for good by the Puritans in 1642—the rebuilt theater has open-air space for 500 groundlings and three tiers of seats, 1,000 in all, protected by a thatched roof. Among the welcome concessions to the 20th century: modern plumbing.

Shakespeare, of course, inhabits the new Globe, and he’s not alone. “Sam is here,” says Mel Cobb, an actor in Gentlemen. “He’s around, saying, ‘That’s good,’ That’s not good.’ His energy, his spirit, is always here.”

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