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Communication skills: McKown and Trova in BTF’s Miracle Worker.

Three’s a Crowd-Pleaser
By Ralph Hammann

Design for Living
By Noël Coward, directed by Gregory Boyd
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 8

Finally, there is reason to visit the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s main stage. While a qualified success, Design for Living is exactly the sort of production missing thus far at the WTF. Stunningly mounted and intelligently (for the most part) directed, it is a vitally necessary play that carries a special impact today as self-righteous politicians and intolerant religious zealots seek to limit personal freedoms and constitutional rights.

Playwright Noël Coward uses a ménage à trois to make an eloquent plea masked as a confection. In Coward’s comedies, one can be relatively assured that when his characters are at their most flippant, the author may be at his most telling.

The trio in this remarkable play are Otto, a painter; Leo, a playwright; and Gilda, a decorator who is involved with both. There is also a fourth character, Ernest, who by virtue of his seriousness and conservatism, lives just outside of their circle. We follow the changes in their couplings from Paris of 1929 to London of 1930 to New York City of 1932. As time passes, Otto, Leo and Gilda are ultimately able to live, as befits their outré desires, by their own unique design as a threesome.

It’s a design given wonderful defense by Otto, who says, “We’re not doing any harm to anyone else. We’re not peppering the world with illegitimate children. The only people we could possibly mess up are ourselves, and that’s our lookout.” Coward’s logic is disarmingly decent.

Campbell Scott (Otto), Steven Weber (Leo) and Marisa Tomei (Gilda) are a likeable trio. All are excellent actors, and although all do not shine together on stage in the first two acts, they eventually glow as a group in the final act.

British accents (and they are practically de rigueur for Coward) are inconsistent and sometimes nonexistent. Tomei’s seems to cause problems in delivery (words are occasionally lost). Weber doesn’t really bother (or get bothered) with one. Scott does best. However, all three offer sufficient charm, sophistication and urbane physicality that they mostly manage to circumvent the language concerns.

Weber most skillfully represents the archetypal Coward protagonist whose complacence is a powerful disguise and buffer to hurt. Scott brings the most humanity to the proceedings in his authoritative performance, but I am not sure that a bit more lightness wouldn’t help.

Even though there may be a slight underlying darkness (infidelity and betrayal), this material is best played with debonair insouciance. When they finally arrive there (Otto and Leo in Scene 2 of Act 2, all three in Act 3), the play sails with a high wind and much hilarity.

Tomei, who looks fetching and flatters her every gown with a silky persuasion, is not ideally cast as an English free spirit; we occasionally sense her working too hard where all should be effortless, but her pluck, expressiveness and animation do much to offset the few off moments. By the time this review is published, I’ve little doubt she will be a thorough delight.

The production values are spectacular; it is perhaps the most elaborately mounted play the WTF has produced in the past nine years. Hugh Landwehr has designed three sets that sweep us into Coward’s worlds. Rui Rita lights all with panache. Candice Donnelly provides costumes to savor. And, courtesy of John Gromada, the music of Cole Porter joins that of Coward to provide flavor and the occasional ironic comment.

Boyd has directed a fast-paced and thought-provoking production that is frequently funny and periodically hilarious (as when Otto and Leo get blissfully drunk and when, later, they become something of a matched set in top hats and tuxedos). Reservations aside, it’s among today’s rare agreeable attempts at Coward.

Falling on Deaf Ears

The Miracle Worker
By William Gibson, Directed by Gary M. English
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 14

Helen Keller’s remarkable accomplishments did not end with the word “water.” In 1888, she entered the Perkins Institute for blind students in Boston, and in 1904 she graduated cum laude from Radcliffe. She went on to champion workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and disabled African-American soldiers in World War II. Many believe the influence of her teacher and lifelong companion, Annie Sullivan, as much as her struggle against blindness and deafness, was responsible for both her success and her compassion for the disadvantaged. That Annie’s life was itself a triumph over enormous odds is made very clear in The Miracle Worker.

I had never paid much attention before to Annie’s story, whether because it was downplayed in the familiar Patty Duke-Anne Bancroft movie or because I was a kid and the little girl’s story was what interested me, I’m not sure. But as an adult watching the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s production of the Tony Award- winning play, it was the reactions of the adults around Helen—her parents, half-brother, and Annie herself—that I latched onto. And powerful stuff it is, at least for me. Surrounded by an annoyingly quiet audience, I cried from the first scene, when Helen’s mother realizes her baby is deaf and blind, to the moment when Annie drags Helen out to fill the pitcher at the pump, stopping only to laugh at Annie’s fearlessly pointed comments. The Miracle Worker is a great play, and BTF’s production goes a long way toward bringing to life.

I’m not certain why Saturday’s matinee audience didn’t respond more willingly to the show, but one reason may be the casting of 25-year-old Justina Trova as Helen. For young playgoers, there is a distancing whenever an adult, however talented, attempts to play a child (I know my kids felt it). For this grownup, however, Trova’s performance was moving, especially in the pantomime-like scenes with Annie, played by Tabitha McKown. As strong as Annie is, I would have liked McKown to be even stronger; in one scene she’s drowned out completely as Helen wreaks havoc on the house. (And did Sullivan, who grew up in a Massachusetts poorhouse, really have an Irish accent?) Of the Keller family members, both Jennifer Roszell, as Kate, and Kasey Mahaffy, as her stepson, stand out; in fact, so vibrant are these characters that an almost distracting undercurrent of attraction runs between them. As Captain Arthur Keller, Michael Hammond is more of a figurehead than an imposing presence, which may be Gibson’s point. Rounding out the household are two lively character actors, Mary E. Hodges as the servant Viney, and DeAnn Mears as Aunt Ev.

Beowulf Boritt’s handsome blue-gray-toned Southern gothic set, nicely complemented by David Murin’s bustles and waistcoats, provided another element more appreciated by adults than kids, who found the almost Faulknerian mood a little disturbing. In the end, it may be that for The Miracle Worker, less is more. The subtexts, innuendo and political references designed to bring depth to the play for grownups take away some of its immediacy and force as family fare. And as one of the few shows that appeal to children without pandering to them, maybe that’s enough.

—Kathryn Ceceri

Voices of America

Coast to Coast: On the Road Home
By Marc Wolf, directed by Emily Mann
Adirondack Theatre Festival, Glens Falls, July 27

In October 2001, New York author-actor Marc Wolf set out from Seattle on a cross-country journey back to a very different home than the one he’d left six months earlier. Tape recorder in hand, Wolf stopped at places all along the country and listened as people talked about what God, country and New York City meant to them in the wake of the terrorist attacks. In Coast to Coast, Wolf re-creates the conversations with a wide variety of interesting speakers, including a Native-American basketmaker who finds herself suddenly reversing her anti-government views; a pair of Latinas who believe New York is the place to find acceptance; a German hitchhiker who disdains American technology but loves our cookies; a theater person from Chicago who knocks New Yorkers for believing they’re the center of the world; and Sal, the hysterical hairdresser from Brooklyn who finds himself on 9/11 doing a blow-dry for a congressman’s wife who’s totally oblivious to the fact that her friends are not flying into D.C. that night for a party. While some episodes need trimming, Wolf’s choice of characters and comments does paint a picture of a nation viewing a national tragedy through very individual eyes, looking for some meaning in an incomprehensible situation.

Wolf’s portrayal of 20 different characters is impressive, though he does better with some than with others. Stefan, the German hitchhiker in the desert, is dead-on; but the 6-year-old girl who’s carving a Halloween pumpkin with her dad is clichéd and annoying. Sometimes it took a while to figure out the ethnicity of the speaker, and the multi-person scenes were sometimes strained. But there are many wonderful moments: the Mississippi dentist originally from India who says he feels like “Islam got hijacked” and sees American Muslims as providing a bridge between two cultures; the visitor to the Martin Luther King museum in Memphis who wished he’d been taught about racism instead of sheltered, but who’s learned that “living with hate can destroy you”; the coal-miner’s widow who had to leave town, pressured by the gossip over who got more compensation money and who had stopped grieving and was dating again. “I felt like people weren’t forgetting soon enough,” she says.

Perhaps the most important element missing in Coast to Coast is from New York City and Wolf himself. I agree with the audience member who told Wolf and director Mann in the discussion afterwards that the final scene with a writer living near Ground Zero rambled on rather than bringing things to a head. And it would have been nice, at the end, to hear Wolf’s own thoughts on what went down. But for all its rough spots, Coast to Coast is a powerful, funny and sad, a fine entry into what is sure to be a growing body of 9/11-inspired work that starts to make the move from history into art.

—Kathryn Ceceri

The Ugly Truth

Rashomon, Gloryday
By Michael John LaChiusa, directed by Ted Sperling, suggested by the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 1

The stories, two of them at any rate, of Ryunosuke Akutagawa made their first significant entrance into Western culture when Akira Kurosawa ingeniously combined two of them to create his breakout film, Rashomon. The stories, “In the Glen” and “Rashomon,” became the basis for Kurosawa’s complex examination of faltering faith and the impossibility of arriving at objective truth. Since, the title has become synonymous with a situation where human subjectivity precludes absolute truth.

Using the same two stories that inspired Kurosawa, Michael John LaChiusa has turned them into separate one-act musicals, R shomon and Gloryday. No credit is directly given Kurosawa for his early role in developing and introducing the material, but then what LaChiusa has created hasn’t an iota of the resonance of that great film—and any comparison to it merely shows up LaChiusa’s weaknesses.

The first and better piece details four testimonies regarding the rape of a woman and the subsequent killing of her husband after the two attend a showing of the film Rashomon (the theater marquee is missing the letter “a,” hence the fractured title of LaChiusa’s musical). As in the uncredited film, the witnesses speak to an unseen entity (the court or police) whose point of view the audience shares. Testifying are a janitor who may have seen the double crime; the wife; the husband (through a psychic); and a thief who is the alleged perpetrator. What emerge are three and a half different versions of the truth and a big lie.

While they are universal in meaning, Akutagawa’s stories and the film are intrinsically Japanese, and contain elements that don’t translate easily into 1950s American society. The Japanese codes of honor and shame don’t really play here. Neither does the reliance on a psychic’s testimony and the presence of a ghost, which works in feudal Japan but merely seems silly in the new setting.

The commanding reason to see this piece is Audra McDonald, the astonishing actress whose performances in Carousel, Ragtime, and A Raisin in the Sun—and whose CDs—made me a believer before her current work in Williamstown. R shomon lacks great, lasting music and a strong book, but it does give McDonald a chance to show her remarkable talents as a dramatic actress and a singer. In the various versions of the rape/killing, McDonald plays three different characterizations of the wife with accompanying emotions that include lust, fright, humiliation, hate, confusion and vengefulness. Despite the overall failings of the music, LaChiusa at least affords her an opportunity to showcase her powerful and eloquent vocal range, particularly in a song titled “No More.” McDonald’s presence here is one of the most significant additions in recent years to the WTF’s roster. I hope it is the first of many returns.

As the thief, Michael C. Hall is also excellent, but LaChiusa has given him a character of less depth than that of Toshiro Mifune’s cinematic character. Henry Stram, Mary Testa and, particularly, Tom Wopat, ably fill out the strong ensemble.

Unfortunately, the orchestra periodically plays too loudly, obscuring parts of their songs. It could be due to the fact that the orchestra is situated in a balcony above the acting area on a plane nearly the same height as the fourth row of the theater where I was seated. But to obscure one note from McDonald is a sin beyond forgiveness.

The same actors reappear in Gloryday, which deals with a priest’s crisis of faith following the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but they can’t save it from the sameness of LaChiusa’s music. It also doesn’t help that the bulk of the play rests on Henry Stram’s uninteresting priest. As well, where Kurosawa poignantly portrayed a priest’s loss of faith in man, LaChiusa’s priest doubts God. It’s a valid choice, but it lacks a human element in application.

—Ralph Hammann

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