Barrington Stage Co.: Eleanor

Harriet Harris

I’ll tell you a little secret. My wife and I were going to go to live theater this month. The Barrington Theatre’s main stage was to host Mark St. Germain’s play Eleanor. It would star Tony award-winning performer Harriet Harris. “The play, directed by Henry Stram, brings to life Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most influential first ladies in American History. The play has two shows, September 4 and 5.”

We had gone to the Pittsfield, MA venue a few times in the past two years. The theatre would have had limited, socially distanced seating and a cast of one. It seemed that the proper protocols were in place. We bought our tickets. Then the live production of the one-act play was shut down by new decisions from the state of Massachusetts.

My wife got a call perhaps a month ago. Our choices were several. We could get a refund, accept credit for future productions, or donate the value of the tickets. But there was a fourth option. Eleanor would now be streamed for two nights. “The play [was] filmed without an audience… In-person ticket holders will automatically be sent a link to the 7:30 show; others interested in watching the performance can purchase tickets now for $15.”

The play’s the thing

“Eleanor brings to life Eleanor Roosevelt, the most influential First Lady the world has ever seen. From her ‘Ugly Duckling’ upbringing to her unorthodox marriage to Franklin, Eleanor puts her controversial life, loves and passions on the stage.” The play was written by Mark St. Germain, as a developmental piece, i.e., a work in progress.

We know quite a bit about the former First Lady from multiple trips to Hyde Park, going back to our respective childhoods, and our sojourn to her cottage at Val-Kill. She was the first Very Important Person to die in my recollection.

St. Germain captured Eleanor quite well, from the familiar – FDR’s ongoing relationship with Lucy Mercer – to representations of her presumed inner thoughts. It was interesting in that it is “modern-day,” almost certainly in the last four years. Yet she knows she’s been dead since 1962. The play was directed by Henry Stram, though there was very little action.

All the world’s a stage

Most of the action came from the facial expressions and voices of Broadway performer Harriet Harris. She won the 2002 Tony winner as the Best Featured Actress In A Musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie. She is very good in the role of Eleanor.

This was a reading. In the introduction, it was noted how previous workshopping had cut about 40 minutes from the piece. But Harris had learned much of the dialogue. The frequency of her reading suggests that the tweaks were greater in the earlier parts of the play.

The downsides of this production are the obvious ones. You don’t see the performer’s whole body. Did the audience laugh at that line, as we did? And staring at a screen for 95 minutes is just NOT exactly the theater experience we were hoping for. It was nevertheless a nice date night event, even if it was traveling to my wife’s office rather than driving to the Berkshires.

America v. 1.0 versus America v. 2.1

the ‘not too distant future’?

America 2.1The Democratic debates, a provocative new play, and a frustrating high school graduation speech all took place within three days in June. Oh, and I was in the midst of retiring.

Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA has two different theaters, fairly close together. One tends to present cutting edge material. America v. 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of The American Negro had its world premiere June 14-30 on the St. Germain Stage. It was written by Stacey Rose, and directed by Logan Vaughn

America v. 2.1 “is a day in the life of a troupe of Black actors who are charged with re-enacting the revised history of the once-thriving American Negro. It quickly becomes a day of reckoning. A provocative, funny and dark look at Black Americans in post-apocalyptic America.” Well, “funny” is of course quite subjective.

From a local review: The play within a play shows the “‘demise of the American Negro was brought about by his own hand’ and ‘by his own actions,’ despite the loving care and ‘noble efforts of the American government and American culture.

“Resurrecting the minstrel show style of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the playwright deploys outrageous caricatures ostensibly to demonstrate, using song and dance, how the Founding Fathers saved the African savages…

“The play takes place in the ‘not too distant future,’ in which the actors, who are clearly aware of the untruthfulness of the history they present, are forced by an authoritarian regime to perform this script ten times in twelve hours, six days a week, or suffer unspecified consequences. In chilling voiceover announcements the presumably white audience is warned against documenting what is seen onstage, and, what is worse, advised when to disengage the safety locks on their firearms.”

The review points out the fine actors: Peterson Townsend as Jeffery, Jordan Barrow as Grant, Kalyne Coleman as Leigh, Ansa Akyea as troupe leader Donavan, and Peggy Pharr Wilson as the “officious and frightening Voice.”

The New Play Exchange notes “The troupe finds themselves at odds with the state of their own existences while being painfully oblivious to the parallels and intersections their lives draw to that of the very Negroes whose story they are bound to tell.”

Intentionally, there was no chance to applaud the performance. The talk back session afterwards allowed the primarily white audience to express how the play made them feel angry, outraged, sad, et al. Some considered it a call to work for change.

The next day, we went to a high school graduation about an hour away. It was VERY HOT outdoors at 6 pm. The speaker was a graduate from three decades ago, and has been working in the military industrial complex for a number of years. Along with the usual bromides, such as having a purpose and work hard, was a message that was about 180 degrees from what I saw the day before.

Race, gender, sexual orientation don’t matter. Work hard and you’ll succeed. And don’t let certain forces take away what you’ve worked hard for, as he conflated democratic socialism with the fight against communism during the Cold War.

The talk generated some to give a standing ovation – n.b., not from us – but it was a fascinating bit of propaganda. Most of my family was not impressed, though one noted that he was “a product of his times.”

Well Intentioned White People; West Side Story

The Barrington Stage Company was founded in January 1995.

Well intentioned white peopleWhen my wife’s family was staying at a timeshare in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, my wife, my daughter, a brother-in-law, one of his daughters, and I went to see productions at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield.

More correctly, we went to the TWO theaters. On the Sunday, we went to the St. Germain to see the world premiere of the play Well Intentioned White People. It was written by Rachel Lynett, who gave an author talk before we’d gotten there.

Someone keyed Cass’ car with a racial epithet. The black professor, looking to make tenure, would just as soon let it go. But thanks to the well-meaning concern of her roommate Viv, it becomes public.

Soon Dean West from her university ends up wanting to make the incident a teachable moment, with Cass and another “minority”, Parker, having to do the heavy lifting to create an “appropriate” event in response.

Many of the characters are quite recognizable, especially the dean, if you’ve ever spent five minutes in the world of academia. You might be surprised to find that the story is often quite funny.

The production continues through September 8. I hope it will be considered for Cap Rep sometime in the future. Incidentally, Andrea Cirie, who plays the dean, has performed in the Albany theater.

The musical we, all but my BIL, saw on the following Wednesday on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, a couple blocks away from the St. Germain, was West Side Story.

I know this story extremely well, and it may be my favorite musical. I saw the movie when I was 10 or 11, I’ve seen a ballet, and several stage productions.

This may be the best. Here’s Steve Barnes’ review in the Albany Times Union. It is playing through September 1.

The Barrington Stage Company was founded in January 1995. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee premiered on the St. Germain stage in 2004, ran on Broadway from 2005-2008, and then played on the Mainstage later in 2008.

My wife and I are considering going to Pittsfield to see The Glass Menageie on the Mainstage in October. It’s amazing that with our several trips to the area over the past couple decades, we discovered BSC only this year.