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An Explosion of Summer Theater

Reviews of plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Miniature Theatre and the New Century Theater.

When summer comes, theater explodes. In Western Massachusetts alone, from the Connecticut River Valley to the Berkshire Hills, no fewer than ten professional and semi-professional companies are offering some fifty different productions this season. In this quick-change repertory, every week sees at least half a dozen new shows opening.

But for me, the most exciting thing about summer theater is not just its abundance, but its variety. World premieres stand shoulder-to-shoulder with old chestnuts. And although musicals and light comedies always dominate, the Shakespeares and Shaws get their share of stage time beside the Sondheims and Simons.

Every troupe has its own style, its own specialties, its own distinctive tang. But within this profusion, the summer-theatergoer can sometimes trace a common thread drawn by the serendipity of the ever-changing schedule. Take, for instance, three shows that played at three quite different theaters in the summer of 2001.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival is one of the grand old pillars of summer theater in the Berkshires. It specializes in big plays, often with big stars, done on a grand scale. The Miniature Theatre, in the tiny hilltown of Chester, Massachusetts, presents finely crafted gems with small casts and expansive themes. And the New Century Theater in Northampton, a relative newcomer to the summer-theater banquet, serves up a nicely balanced menu of contemporary fare.

At first glance, the shows that ran at these venues couldn't be more different. A lavish Shakespearean production ran on Williamstown's mainstage; the Miniature Theater presented a two-person meditation on post-apartheid South Africa; and New Century had the world premiere of a comedy about female Civil War re-enacters. But all of these plays, each in its own way, examine a world in flux, where people facing an uncertain future have to come to terms with the past.

During the apartheid era, playwright Athol Fugard served as the conscience of the white South African minority. Valley Song, his first post-apartheid play, grapples with questions of identity and possibility in the new South Africa. A white narrator introduces us to an elderly 'Colored' man known as Buks, who has two simple but passionate desires: to tend his few acres of vegetables, which are owned by a white man, and to keep his young granddaughter safe from the lure of the city that swallowed her mother. The playwright specifies that both men are to be played by the same actor. Here the roles were taken by Vincent Dowling, the Miniature Theatre's founder, and he anchors the production with the relaxed competence of a seasoned veteran. The show's surprise treat was Eboni Summer Cooper, whose playful, exuberant performance as the young granddaughter with big-city dreams fairly set the stage alight.

"The Winter's Tale" is one of Shakespeare's bittersweet fairy tales of loss and redemption, full of magic, pastoral virtues and miraculous coincidences. This is the one about the king whose foolish suspicions of his wife's chastity destroys his family and his happiness, until time, forgiveness and several unlikely conjunctions of fate restore both his wife and his long-lost daughter, who was saved from death, raised as a shepherdess, and courted by a prince. Darko Tresnjak's production at Williamstown was splendidly sumptuous, with a colorfully costumed cast of 50 and an imposing set by David Gordon dominated by a huge symbolic clock. But it was oddly flat. The acting was more than adequate, with solid, often impassioned performances by Kate Burton, Kristine Nelson, and John Bedford Lloyd, and Stephen DeRosa did a nice comic turn as a rustic thief. Everything was in place-- shepherds dance, nobles anguish--but the moments that could be wrenching were overblown, and the ending, which should be achingly poignant, was merely inevitable.

In Doris Baizley's charming new comedy, "Shiloh Rules," six women meet on the site of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles. Four, costumed like ladies of 1862, played carefully researched historical roles--two Union nurses and a pair of civilian refugees from the Confederate side--in a mass, offstage re-enactment of the battle of Shiloh, Tennessee. There's also a kind of modern Mother Courage, selling trinkets and Cokes to both sides of the battle lines, and a uniformed park ranger patrolling the Shiloh Battleground national monument.

The show's free-flowing humor springs as much from the anachronisms that constantly crop up as from the three-way clash among North, South, and park ranger Wilson, who is tough, skeptical, and black. New Century Theater's production was sharp and funny and even touching, and to pick out any of the six cast members without saluting the others would be an injustice to an almost perfectly balanced ensemble. But I'll do it anyway: Marin Ireland is a rising star to keep a close eye on--an actress who combines a magnetic stage presence with a finely detailed mastery of her craft. Here she played Lucy Gale Scruggs, a stringy hill girl participating, awkwardly but exuberantly, in her first re-enactment. Even in this strong company, whenever she was on stage, she was the one you couldn't help but watch.

All three of these plays show us people struggling to heal the scars of past history and live more meaningfully in the present. That they do it in such delightfully various ways--poetically, comically, poignantly--is testimony to the luxurious cornucopia that is summer theater.

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