In the heat of summer, few options hold out more appeal for arts-loving New Englanders and New Yorkers than a visit to the Berkshires. A scant 2-1/2 hours west of Boston and a similar drive north out of Manhattan, the Berkshires combine the lush, peaceful vistas and cooler air of the mountains with some of the hottest cultural events of the summer. The range of artistic activity there includes half a dozen museums (the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., and the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge are standouts), in addition to a boggling array of performing-arts series. The primary artistic roost is ruled by the triumvirate of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Jacob's Pillow, in Becket, is a hotbed of dance activity. The Williamstown Theatre Festival opened its 43rd season of summer presentations last Wednesday and draws some of the best actors and directors in the business. Highlights include the festival's Main Stage opening production of Jon Robin Baitz's "The Film Society," a play directed by Roger Rees that unfolds amid the sociopolitical tension of a boys' school in 1970 South Africa. Pulitzer Prize-winner Sidney Kingsley's 1935 social drama "Dead End" features impressive casting in the figures of Robert Sean Leonard, Campbell Scott, and Scott Wolf ("Party of Five"). Another casting coup is Charles MacArthur's political campaign comedy "Johnny on a Spot," with the multitalented Bill Irwin. The festival will also feature several premires. Eduardo Machado's "Stevie Wants to Play the Blues," the story of a young 1940s jazz musician with an original jazz score by Geri Allen, will be given its world premire. Albert Innaurato's absurdist "Dreading Thekla," about an unconventional love triangle, will also have its world premire. Richard Nelson and Alexander Gelman's humorous "Misha's Party" makes its American debut, as will Donald Margulies's "Broken Sleep: Three Plays," with music by Michael John LaChiusa. Shakespeare & Co. is celebrating its 20th season of presenting the Bard under the stars with a gala opening July 5, featuring readings by Zo Caldwell, Olympia Dukakis, Eli Wallach, and artistic director Tina Packer. The season's main outdoor production is "Henry IV, Part I," complemented by the indoor production of "The Winter's Tale." There are also two one-act plays by Edith Wharton (the festival takes place on the author's estate) and contemporary works by Harold Pinter and Joan Ackermann.
Then there's music at Tanglewood. A June 28 gala "Evening of Stars" will showcase the breadth of its repertoire with performances by the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Boston Symphony Chamber Players, and soloists to include Wynton Marsalis and Leon Fleisher. Other highlights are the opening concert July 3 with Jessye Norman and the fully staged production of Poulenc's comic opera "Les Mamelles de Tiresias." Brahms gets the royal treatment with performances of all four symphonies, "Schicksalslied" for chorus and orchestra, and numerous chamber and solo works. The 20th anniversary of "Star Wars" will be honored when composer/conductor John Williams leads the BSO in music from his film scores. Tanglewood's highly acclaimed Festival of Contemporary Music runs Aug. 9-14 with Reinbert De Leeuw directing and composer Christopher Rouse in residence. Highlights include four works by Rouse, two world premires, and a concert devoted to the works of noted Soviet composer Sofia Gubaidulina.
The venerable Robert Shaw will close the BSO season with Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" and Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 on Aug. 24, after which the BSO and Handel & Haydn Society make appearances before the popular Jazz Weekend (Aug. 29-31). * For further information, call the Berkshire Visitor's Bureau in Pittsfield, Mass., at 800-237-5747.