Berkshire Theatre Group Gives A Gift of “Holiday Memories”
After their enormously successful and justly lauded miracle of a production, “Godspell” this summer, BTG is back with a gift of “Holiday Memories” to close out the year. It is a hard-fought, clear-eyed, peaceful exit to a most horrible of years in our country and theater community in particular. “Godspell” was the first and one of the only productions which received Actors Equity approval to be performed this year. BTG and their resolute Artistic Director Kate Maguire were rewarded for their persistence in the face of daunting odds with a rave review by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, national coverage and a $1 million dollar gift by the family of Mary Anne Gross to whom the production of “Holiday Memories” is dedicated to.
“Holiday Memories” can’t possibly replicate the reaction to the Stephen Schwartz musical but it does something far more difficult and perhaps just as valuable by focusing on the need for us to find refuge, forgiveness and faith after a year when we have been forced apart and brought low by a disease, hatred and our own soul sickness. The evening is comprised of two acts which are made up of adaptations by Russell Vandenbroucke of two Truman Capote short stories. Act One is “The Thanksgiving Visitor” which lasts 45 minutes and Act Two is “A Christmas Memory” which is a half hour. The evening was directed by Eric Hill and stage managed by Jason Weixelman.
In “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” Truman as the story’s narrator is played by the expert BTG artistic associate David Adkins and his seven-year-old self, called Buddy, is played with great charm by Tim Jones, unrecognizable from his turn as Judas this summer. Buddy has been deposited by his wayward parents with adult cousins in hardscrabble, rural, Depression-era Alabama. He forms a great friendship with a cousin in her sixties named Sook (the indispensable Corinna May) and they spend countless hours alone in the kitchen together. Buddy has a bully problem. Every day on the way to school he is terrorized by Odd Henderson (terrific Daniel Garrity) a twelve-year-old classmate who has repeated every grade he’s been in at least once. He says to Buddy after viciously anointing his head with burrs “You’re a sissy. I’m just straightening you out.”
Sook insists that Buddy invite Odd to Thanksgiving dinner and make friends with him. After all, the simple woman reasons, “He doesn’t know you. How could he hate you?” This tough lesson in forgiveness and how our desire for revenge can wreak havoc on who we are is not sugar-coated by director Hill and his cast. The twin narration responsibilities by Adkins and Jones are handled superbly and the story never stops moving which is a good thing in these frigid temperatures. The two storytellers lean into a Southern flintiness. You won’t recognize the celebrity Capote in their shared portrait which is a good thing. It is splendid to see Adkins sneak in another assured stage performance this year after his previous triumphs at BTG in “The Petrified Forest” and “The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?” the past two seasons. Isadora Wolf plays a variety of parts and also contributes some excellent, socially distant wrestling as the fight choreographer. Best of all, is the scene where Sook imparts the message of the play and the delicate and searching, inchoate pain expressed by Jones under Corinna May’s ministrations. It’s lovely, identifiable and heart rending.
There is a long intermission where you can grab some warm beverages upstairs in the barn or get closer to the space heaters spread out in the audience area. “A Christmas Memory” has Sook and Buddy preparing for what they don’t know will be their last Christmas together. They gather pecans that have fallen, count their pennies earned from swatting flies and buy the whiskey for their prized fruitcake from the sullen Haha Jones (Garrity again). They finish their fruitcakes and imbibe of the rest of the whiskey whereupon Sook is reprimanded for giving a seven-year-old whiskey. They spend the rest of the holiday making home-made ornaments for the huge tree they have brought home and plan their gifts to each other which turn out to be in a “Gift of the Magi” irony, matching kites for each other. They share oranges together and fly their kites alone together in the meadow. The story closes on an elegiac note as Capote bids farewell to Sook in his writing, remembering this scene and his realization that this kite flying Christmas was as close to another human being and heaven as either will know.
The entrance to the playing area, which is all outdoors, is through what I always understood was the scene shop alongside the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. Behind the building is a courtyard unseen from the parking area and its almost like a secret world were hidden behind a veil from us and it is only through extraordinary circumstances and adventurous playgoing does the new vista open to us. There’s a stage in this courtyard, multiple entrances through adjoining barns and a staircase and porch entrance on the second floor. Set design by Randall Parsons, lighting by Matthew E. Adelson, costumes by Laurie Churba, sound by Nathan Leigh and dialect coaching Jennifer Scapetis-Tyler. Enough credit and thanks cannot go out to these technical staff, working outdoors brings more challenges and they have presented a most attractive and compelling physical environment for these desperate, festive tales.
There was a ridiculously bright and full moon looking down sharply through the branches on us Saturday night. It was great to be in such excellent artistic company grappling with questions and striving to celebrate “the secrets the human heart reveals” as Maguire said in her curtain speech. Both stories challenge and reward your concentration and direct empathy with the poor souls portrayed onstage, something it’s not so easy to do in the most ideal circumstances but very difficult in freezing temperatures. The experience will live on and memorialize this time for me quite profoundly. The night was a cold trial but the reassurance that we would persevere was worth the chill. Do bring a blanket.