A sculptor renowned for hyperrealistic, often supersized work, Johnson has done pieces on the Mona Lisa and Marilyn Monroe. They're the subjects of the two other plays in Sabato's Backstories trio.
"People have tried to figure out what the Mona Lisa's smile is about for 500 years. I'm trying to do it in 30 minutes," says Sabato, 63. He's a partner, with Ray Croce and Chelsea DiPilla, in A Saturday's Child, an arts and entertainment company in Somers Point.
"I completely trusted Dambra's perspective," says Rena Perrone, the performing arts manager at Grounds, who engaged the company to create and produce the plays. "I'm excited to see it come alive onstage."
I get a sneak peek as the Unconditional Surrender cast and crew do a tech rehearsal Tuesday.
Kuerzi, 24, of Mullica Hill, gets her hair arranged into a suitably retro 'do by Philadelphia actress Allison Kessler, who's also 24. Glenn Kraft, 25, of Jamison, Pa., sports an authentic-looking Navy uniform; his scene will go up first.
"The space is absolutely wonderful, but it's cavernous," notes Croce, the director. The gallery, like many of Johnson's sculptures, is enormous, a vast space in keeping with the Grounds' garden-in-an-industrial-park vibe.
"We have to keep [the performance] intimate," Croce, 56, adds. "We had smaller rehearsals in my house in Cherry Hill, and the cast meshed very well."
Before the actors take the stage, I chat with Sabato. He's an energy shot - even when seated (for a moment) on a sofa.
I ask how he managed to use pieces of sculpture that themselves had been inspired by icons as raw materials for an evening of theater.
"The first step is a massive amount of research," he says. "I truly believe the key to writing a good play is to take one fanciful possibility and wrap it in a thousand truths."
Johnson's 26-foot Marilyn, recently returned to the Grounds after a sojourn in Palm Springs, depicts the star's dress-billowing pose atop a subway grate in the film The Seven-Year Itch.
Sabato came up with a backstory that he says will offer not just one but two classic Marilyn moments, courtesy of New York performer Erika Smith.
As for Mona, played by Philadelphia actress Angela Carolfi, the playwright drew from the powerful females in his Italian American childhood in Philly's Swampoodle section.
"Mona Lisa is a woman of the 16th century, but she's very much a modern woman," Sabato says, describing his one-act as "a chess match between Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci."
And as for the iconic kiss, the playwright tells a story based on widespread speculation that (spoiler alert?) the lip-lock that became a symbol of spontaneous joy may have been staged.
"There's been a lot of controversy," says Sabato, and his play is "creative conjecture" about the sailor who kissed the girl in the white uniform as America embraced the end of the war.
"Who are these people?" he says. "How did they get there?"
The lights on the stage go down, then come up. And we find out.