Local theater companies entertain real-life issues
A young man from Colombia experiences New York for the first time. A pianist from Harlem sees his son for the first time. A woman speaking in sign insists on the beauty of her language.
What is American? As they open their summer seasons, Berkshire theaters are taking on this question in a tough, broad-minded way with plays that address some of the political and cultural divisions across the country.
June begins with a performance by an actor known for a role that defined America in its early days. Leslie Odom Jr. (photo right), winner of the 2016 Tony Award for best actor as Aaron Burr in the original cast of Hamilton, will come to Williamstown to star in a reading of Alan Fox’s play, Safe Space, with Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) at the Clark Art Institute on June 8. (Tickets for the free event were gone the first day they were released.) Odom plays a professor with a student who brings a complicated accusation against him, says WTF artistic director Mandy Greenfield. When the college president steps in, all three characters have to ask themselves where they stand in this country.
On June 28, Jason Kim’s world premiere, The Model American, will open on WTF’s Nikos Stage, directed by Danny Sharron. The play is about Gabriel—young, Latino, gay, and openly ambitious, who comes from Colombia to New York looking for work and love. (Played by Han Jonghoon, photo left.) There, he begins to build a place to be who he is in ways he could not in the family, class, and place in which he was born. Kim (HBO’s “Girls”) tells the story, as Gabriel lives it, with humor and humanity.
The Model American was born at WTF last summer during the annual Bill Foeller Directing Fellowship, a rare program that focuses on emerging directors, Greenfield says. “I do believe playwrights are the interpreters of the time we are living in,” she says, “but it is shockingly relevant to be doing a play about an immigrant’s experience in 2017, when every headline seems to touch on it.”
Barrington Stage Company takes up the challenge of what is American with Kunstler, a one-man show about radical lawyer and activist William Kunstler, on the St. Germain Stage through June 10. Kunstler defended Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicago Seven during the Vietnam War, and American Indian activists. He often defended the Constitution to the line, says artistic director Julianne Boyd: He would defend a man’s or woman’s freedom of speech or right to defend themselves—rights he considered basic to the Constitution and the country; he was putting the system itself on trial.
Barrington Stage often opens the Mainstage season with a musical, and Boyd sees this as the right time for Ragtime, a production she has beenwanting to do for years. Its sweeping cast and glorious score, based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel, has such depth of courage and pain, she says. A housewife from New Rochelle, left on her own, meets a piano player from Harlem and a father from Latvia, and enters into the risks they take to protect their families and their lives. Set at the turn of the 20th century, its themes are still relevant today—immigration, race, injustice. (Elizabeth Stanley performs in Ragtime, photo above right.)
Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God will open on the Fitzpatrick Mainstage of Berkshire Theatre Group on June 22, directed by Tony Award–winner Kenny Leon. A man and a woman meet at a school for the deaf. James is hearing, and he teaches speech and lip reading. Sarah is deaf from birth and speaks in sign and loves the fluid, expressive strength of her language. Lauren Ridloff, who plays Sarah, is also deaf, and so are two of her fellow members of the cast.
“Lauren is extraordinary,” says BTC artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire. “She brings great depth and understanding of this character.” Written in 1979, the play has been on Maguire’s wish list for a long time. “It has such a center in the heart, and we are so off-center right now,” she says. “It is about hearing and not hearing, in many ways, about communication, about being off-balance and finding how to come together.”
Fresh from a cast reading, she recounts a scene when Joshua Jackson (photo right) as James makes Sarah speak out loud, knowing the language she speaks familiarly does not use sound in that way.
“It’s one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in a theater,” Maguire says. “He is trying to control the relationship, and she won’t have it. And he learns. He learns her language.”
And at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles runs from May 25 through July 16. After a friend’s death, a young man comes to his grandmother, played by Annette Miller (photo left,) in her Greenwich Village apartment.
“She’s a radical and a free spirit,” says publicity director Molly Clancy.
Allyn Burrows, artistic director at Shakespeare & Company, describes the story as a meeting of generations, she says, a conversation between passionate thinkers coming from different sides. The play rides the edge between comic and sad as they try to reach each other.
“The political state we’re in now can be polarizing,” says Clancy.
“This is about how we connect and re-connect and see things differently.”