Stage

Stagestruck: Whaddalineup!!!

At two Berkshire theaters, four plays with interlocking themes.

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Three of the four plays I saw last weekend were world premieres, and one was the premiere of a brand-new translation of a classic. In three of them, the safe, comfortable world of a well-to-do woman is upended by an unexpected turn of events, and in the fourth, the same thing happens to a placid middle-class marriage. Two of those life-changing crises are precipitated by the intrusion of young blood into settled lives, and two, surprisingly, by strokes. I caught the plays in pairs, at the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge (berkshiretheatre.org, 413-298-5576) and the Williamstown Theatre Festival (wtfestival.org, 413-597-3400).

Just debuted in BTG's Unicorn Theatre is William Donnelly's Homestead Crossing. That's the suburban address of middle-aged Noel and Anne (David Adkins and Corinna May) whose comfortable but desultory marriage is shaken up by a younger couple, motormouth Claudia and stoner Tobin (Lesley Shires and Ross Cowan) who arrive seeking shelter from a persistent (and metaphorical) rainstorm.

The dialogue is pointed and often witty, and the cast in Kyle Fabel's tight production is uniformly excellent. While the clash-of-opposites plot-trigger is conventional, Donnelly's ultimate goal in bringing them together is intriguing. For me, though, it's a little too neat, the plotting and characters rather mechanically contrived to serve the playwright's (yes, metaphorical) objective.

Edith, which closed last week at BTG, imagines what happened "backstage" at the White House when President Woodrow Wilson was sidelined by a stroke and his wife became the de facto surrogate president. In Kelly Masterson's historical reconstruction, Edith Wilson stonewalls the press and politicians and defies her husband's advisors, who insist that compromise with the Senate leadership is the only way to achieve ratification of the Treaty of Versailles and her husband's cherished dream of a League of Nations.

Kelly, a successful screenwriter, deftly moves the action through short cinematic scenes which neatly cross-fade into multiple locations via Brett Banakis' set composed of rolling walls. Flashbacks to days of pre-war courtship and post-war France alternate with Edith's increasingly desperate maneuvering as the treaty hangs in the balance. Here, too, the cast is superb, led by Jayne Atkinson and Jack Gilpin as the Wilsons. The personal and political clashes are fascinating to watch, and if you didn't know the history you'd be on the edge of your seat to see how it turns out. As it is, it left me wondering if the playwright's point was that Edith Wilson had the opportunity to make history, and blew it.

Playing through this weekend on Williamstown's two stages are a pair of plays as dissimilar as you're likely to see this summer, having nothing in common but their lives-turned-upside-down themes. Ivan Turgenev's A Month in the Country is the great precursor to Chekhov's bitter comedies of provincial Russian lives of quiet desperation. Natalya, wife of a wealthy landowner, seems quite satisfied with her rather empty life until she's blindsided by a sudden infatuation with her son's tutor and jealousy of her teenage ward.

This new version was crafted by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, our generation's premier translators of Russian literature, collaborating with playwright Richard Nelson to produce a supple, vernacular and wonderfully actable script. As director, Nelson has fashioned a sharply focused, deeply felt production, movingly acted by a strong ensemble. Taking the lead from Stanislavsky's opinion that the play needs "a sense of total intimacy," he has placed it on a small thrust stage, half-surrounded by the audience and with the cast seated just offstage too, observing the action with us.

Eden Higgenbotham's desperation is anything but quiet in Whaddabloodclot!!! After the affluent, self-absorbed socialite is felled by a stroke, she awakens to find she's afflicted with a neurological disorder known as Foreign Accent Syndrome. Suddenly, she's got a Jamaican accent—a white one-percenter speaking in the lilting patois of her daughter's black nanny.

In her mischievous new play, Katori Hall gives the rare (but, amazingly, real) syndrome a karmic twist: those stricken with F.A.S. experience the world through the eyes—make that the mouths—of their social opposites. This is ultimately a morality play, and the affliction's leveling effect inevitably humanizes Eden. Her linguistically inspired misadventures include awkward encounters with other millionaires (including Beyoncé), a humiliating rebuff at her bank, and a support group for fellow sufferers (including a homophobic football player who now talks like a gay waiter). The scenes too often play like SNL sketches—easy jokes lobbed at soft targets—but the multicultural cast is always entertaining, headed by Tina Benko as svelte, blonde Eden, hilariously mouthing things like, "Me tink you aw gahn maad!"

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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