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The Healing Touch

Play reviews: Miniature Theatre of Chester, Old Deerfield Productions, and Weston Playhouse.

The summer theater season is at its height in Western New England. Productions on view this month range from revered classics to contemporary hits, from giddy comedies to thoughtful dramas. With this abundance and variety, it is sometimes possible to trace common themes in several otherwise unconnected shows.

One such thread running through three current productions is that of healing; closing old wounds; coming to terms with the past and constructing a more positive future. This age-old dramatic theme is touched on in three plays separated by 2000 years: a Greek drama, a Shakespearean favorite, and a recent Pulitzer Prize winner.

In Deerfield, Massachusetts, director Linda McInerney is staging "The Cure at Troy," Irish poet Seamus Heaney's adaptation of "Philoctetes," by Sophocles. It takes place during the Trojan War, but there are intentional modern parallels in the script and on the stage, where the Greek soldiers are dressed in 20th-century battle fatigues.

In "The Cure at Troy" the hurt to be healed is physical as well as figurative. It's the story of the Greek archer Philoctetes, who was marooned on a volcanic island with a festering wound when the Greek fleet sailed for Troy. For ten years he has fed on resentment, self-pity, and revenge. This bitterness must also be cured before Philoctetes can be made whole. McInerney's production effectively plumbs the play's emotional depths without wallowing in them. And the same can be said for her star, Daniel Popowich, who gives an enormous performance as Philoctetes -- physically, emotionally, and vocally -- that's also a lesson in restraint.

Like Sophocles in "Philoctetes," Shakespeare in "The Tempest" is saying that happy endings are made of reconciliation, not revenge. Here it's the duke-turned-magician, Prospero, who has been nursing old wrongs and who confronts his tormentors on the desert island of his enforced exile. The production, at the Miniature Theatre of Chester, is suspended rather precariously from an intriguing premise dreamed up by the company's founding director, Vincent Dowling.

The concept springs from the "miniature" in Miniature Theatre -- how to get this 15-character play onto that intimate stage. The answer, dreamed up by the company's founding director, Vincent Dowling, is this: Imagine that five of the people depicted in "The Tempest" return to the island years later and reenact the events of the play. The implication is that they're fed up with the intrigues and cruelties of civilization and long for the pure and simple life of that enchanted island.

This notion is introduced, rather cryptically, in a brief prologue written by Dowling, but then it's just dropped. The rest of the evening, ably directed by Brian Marsh, showcases some very good actors in multiple roles. But there's no discernible development or reflection of the framing device. The other puzzlement here is Prospero. Vincent Dowling is usually a charismatic stage presence. But here, perhaps distracted by his own multiple roles as mastermind, producer, and star, he's stiff and static, clashing uncomfortably with the energetic naturalism of his versatile fellow actors. Most impressive of these is Manon Halliburton, who gives her four roles -- including two men and a disembodied spirit -- marvelously distinct bodies, voices, and faces.

If "The Tempest" reflects a longing to get ourselves back to the garden, the central figure in "Proof" is struggling to break free of the choking vines of the past. Now we're in present-day Chicago, but still marooned, so to speak, on the isle of academe. Catherine has given up her life, and much of her own identity, to caring for her father, a world-famous mathematician whose brilliance was eclipsed by insanity. She has inherited her father's mathematical gift, but also, possibly, his disposition to madness.

In this fascinating play of ideas and emotions, the wounds arise from family relationships and some are self-inflicted. Here, healing depends not so much on forgiveness as validation. Catherine is a woman in a man's field, a daughter in the shadow of a great man. Is she her father's intellectual equal, a thinker and a person in her own right? Or is she a failure, or a fraud, or delusional?

Steve Stettler's production of David Auburn's Broadway hit, for the Weston Playhouse in Vermont, is crisp and intelligent, with a riveting central performance. Kate Goehring gives us an intense young woman whose words tumble out of her as if propelled by the speed of her thoughts, and whose hair-trigger emotions could signal genius or craziness or both.

"Proof" calls to mind Gödel's incompleteness theorem, which says that just because something is true doesn't mean it's possible to prove it. The healing truths offered by these three plays are intangible, but compelling. Hatred is a cycle of wounds that never close until the wheel is broken. Forgiveness feels better than revenge. Self-worth and self-knowledge grow from confronting the present and coming to terms with the past. Part of the healing quality of theater is its capacity for revealing elusive truths that engage the mind and refresh the spirit.

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