Much Ado About Mansion in the Berkshires

The Mount, writer Edith Wharton's former home in Lenox, Mass., has found a burgeoning new life as a Shakespearean summer theater. Since 1978, the 35-room mansion and its 48 acres of fields and gardens in the verdant Berkshire woods have housed Shakespeare & Company - a troupe of actors, teachers, and students, led by artistic director Tina Packer.

The care, maintenance, and restoration of the property was entrusted to the Edith Wharton Restoration, a foundation incorporated in 1978 by Ms. Packer and the group around her that established SS & Co. When EWR purchased The Mount with the help of the National Trust in 1980, the deed provided that the property be used for "residential and/or theatrical purposes ... and related educational activities."

But as time passed, the chronicle of SS & Co. and EWR has become as complicated as one of Shakespeare's history plays where protagonists raise armies to battle over the same piece of turf. And like the subtext of the Shakespearean dramas, the players' motives fuel the action.

In the past few years, the relationship between SS & Co. and EWR has been marked by repeated charges and counter-charges, resulting in litigation. In April, both sides spent five days presenting testimony to a court-appointed master.

According to EWR attorney Andrew Grainger, one objective of the hearing was for the two organizations to lay down ground rules for living together.

Even the casual tourist can see the reality at The Mount where EWR has deferred maintenance, except for the kitchen that has been restored. To view The Mount in its current state is to note cracked outer walls, paint peeling off walls within the house, and a terrace in disrepair.

At risk is nothing less than the premise of retaining The Mount for future generations - and the manner in which this purpose is served. Packer's vision for The Mount is a home for SS & Co., an adaptive use of the property with the theater providing the income stream for maintenance and fund-raising for building needs.

Wharton had commissioned the building of her only American home in 1902, but left it in 1912 to live abroad when her marriage foundered and her husband sold The Mount. Among the novels she wrote in her Lenox bedroom were "The House of Mirth" and "Ethan Frome."

The estate had two more private owners before its transformation into a dormitory for a girls' boarding school in 1942. By 1978, the school had failed, and The Mount was sold to a developer for condominiums and time-shares, which were later abandoned because he went bankrupt.

That spring Packer came into the picture. "I was teaching a workshop at Smith College [in Northampton, Mass.] and looking for a place in the Berkshires to start a Shakespearean theater," she recalls. "A grounds person from one of the Lenox estates was driving us through the back roads. It was dusk ... the magic hour. We drove past The Mount. I looked back and saw the house behind me. The windows were all boarded up with plywood. No one had lived there for six years."

Packer arranged to see the house the next day. "There were burst pipes in the walls, ice on the floor, books overturned, and falling plaster. The grounds were overgrown, something like 'The Secret Garden.' We knew absolutely that this was what we wanted," Packer says.

Within two months, the theater troupe was in residence at The Mount, with Packer living in Wharton's bedroom. Actors, directors, student apprentices, and master teachers alike were assigned work duty to repair the property along with learning their lines.

During the first summer the actors presented "A Midsummer Night's Dream" on an outdoor stage at the rear of the terrace and a dramatization adapted from portions of Wharton's novels in various spaces within the white stucco mansion.

By the end of that first season, the community had welcomed the theater into its midst, a warm bond that continues to this day. As the years have gone by, SS & Co. has expanded to present 11 summer productions that attract 32,000 persons to four different locales on the property: two outdoor stages, the drawing room, and a theater in the stables.

SS & Co. also runs an educational program in neighboring school systems and a training institute for actors and teachers. Past participants include such well-known actors as Karen Allen, Rebecca DeMornay, Richard Dreyfuss, Bill Murray, Keanu Reeves, Alicia Silverstone, and Sigourney Weaver.

EWR annually offers house tours and a summer lecture series for 10,000 visitors.

Early on, Packer and her associates ran both SS & Co. and EWR, with interlocking boards, but by 1982, two separate organizations emerged. EWR became landlord to SS & Co. The lease provided for SS & Co. to pay rent, half the maintenance costs, and 90 percent of utility bills.

Stephanie Copeland, executive director of EWR, opposes the theater's usage. She says the first priority must be restoration, with SS & Co. scaled back because of damage she claims has been done due to the negligence of the theater. EWR also asserts that SS & Co has been behind on rental payments.

Although EWR instituted proceedings to evict SS & Co. in 1994, Mr. Grainger says, "We are not trying to get them off the premises. We are trying to get them to behave responsibly." In response, SS & Co. contends that EWR has neglected its duty to care for the property.

Earlier this year, EWR announced plans for a four-part restoration, starting this summer. Costs were predicted at $10 to $20 million. EWR has run a deficit each year, and observers wonder where funds can be found in this era of shrinking support for nonprofit organizations.

Ms. Copeland says she has pledges in hand to begin the work, but as of this writing, no scaffolding is in place.

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