Amid lighter fare: powerful drama on the straw hat trail

The words "summer theater" make many think instantly of summer stock, but in western Massachusetts there are two theater companies that have made quite a go of more serious fare than the straw hat trail usually offers.

Both share the name Theater Festival, with "Williamstown" being on the Williams College campus (a particularly beautiful spot), while "Berkshire" is in the heart of Stockbridge (also lovely), taking its name from the rolling foothills that surround it.

Both draw important names from Broadway, TV, and film -- such as Blythe Danner, Frank Langella, Christopher Reeve, Edward Herrmann (at Williamstown); and Christopher Walken, Mary Beth Hurt, Mary Louise Wilson, Gretchen Wyler, and Kim Hunter (at Stockbridge).

This helps explain what makes the Williamstown experience so unusual. Stars love to work there. This is partly the doing of director Nikos Psacharopoulos. Even if his productions (he does not direct them all) are not all that tidy, the schedule is ambitious, offering plays one cannot otherwise see in the summertime (or even in the wintertime, for that matter). He has achieved something very special in Williamstown in the past 26 years, and for that, theater lovers owe him a debt of gratitude.

Frank Langella, for instance, was recently delivering a magnificent "Cyrano de Bergerac" in Williamstown, and Mr. Walken and Miss Hurt were paired in "The Rainmaker" in Stockbridge.

It is one of the great mysteries that Mr. Langella has not become a bigger star. He has the presence, the acting ability, and the looks. "Dracula" on Broadway almost put him there, then a hatchet job was performed on that superb characterization in the tawdry movie version that followed. He is, on top of everything else, probably one the finest classical actor America has produced in many years, as his Cyrano movingly proved.

Rostrand's play would not appear to have much relevance in today's anti-sentiment, me-first world. Can a man who puts duty, honor, and style over desire possibly have any impact today -- a man who steps aside and allows another to have the love he wants (and, but for his looks, deserves) -- a man for whom a turn of poetic phrase is as satisfying as a well-fought duel?

Langella proved he could. For not only was this a performance of remarkable enunciation (no mean feat in a role whose words, stretched end to end, could very probably reach the moon Cyrano so constantly praises), but of precise and meticulous characterization and movement as well.It wa also a performance that revealed the depths of passion of the man, and the depths of his suffering, what the cost really was in bottling it all up for the sake of chivalry, style, and panache. When Cyrano finally expires at play's end, knowing that his white plume (that indescribable, affecting symbol of his entire life) remains unsullied, untouched, the moment registers powerfully with an audience.

And the audience at Williamstown did not resist Cyrano or Langella or even the play -- hankies fluttered often, as they must if Rostand's creation is to be deemed a success.

The rest of the cast tended to be below the Williamstown standard, but there were John Conklin's handsome sets and Peter Hunt's superb lighting. B. H. Barry's spectacular fight scenes, and above all Mr. Langella's Cyrano -- unquestionably the Cyrano of the day. Berkshire Theater Festival

The Berkshire Theater Festival was taken over last year by Josephine R. Abady , and finally, after seasons of floundering, the place has a look, and a very good one at that. She has rightly decided that the main stage should be a place to see the best of American theater classics of the recent and distant past.

Richard Nash's "The Rainmaker" eminently fits into that broad category.

Like "Cyrano," one might wonder if a play about ideals, trust, dreams, expectations, and self-fulfillment will have any meaning to an audience today. Well, judging by the constant and spontaneous outbursts of applause in the last act, there can be no question that "The Rainmaker" continues to grab and keep an audience from first line to final curtain.

And the performance on the stage helped no end. As directed by Stan Wojewodski Jr., it sustained a remarkable momentum, and the actors played for simplicity, humor, and utter believability.

Mary Beth Hurt made us feel every one of Lizzie's conflicting emotions -- from the belief in her plainness to the ideal that she harbors of finding a man who will appreciate her for her witty, clever, vivacious self rather than for a stereotype of vacuous femininity. Christopher Walken has one of the strongest stage presences around -- self-confidence, power, and a certain almost animalistic strength erupt from him the minute he walks on a stage. No wonder he was cast as the con man with a dream, who disarms almost an entire family and gets them believing that perhaps he can make rain in a dry season. David Pott's turntable set moves freely between house, sheriff's office, and barn, and Linda Fisher's costumes and Jeff Davis's lighting exude overpowering heat.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.