So you’re a Bostonian who lives for theater, and you’re feeling bereft because so many of your favorite local playhouses have gone dark or at least scaled back programming until September?
Do not despair, for this is the season when the curtain rises in the Berkshires to reveal a bounty of good, sometimes great, theater.
We’re not talking summer stock here, but rather a packed schedule of polished professional productions — some of them world premieres — by four regional theaters that boast national reputations: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, and Barrington Stage Company.
Yes, you’ll have to drive a couple of hours to see their work, but once you’re out in rustic western Massachusetts you’ll mostly be liberated from the crushing psychic toll that Boston traffic can take on a theatergoer who is rushing to make a curtain.
Indeed, “rush’’ is one four-letter word Berkshires theatergoers don’t use much. Befitting both the season and the region’s status as a tourist magnet, the vibe during the summer is informal, and the dress code is pretty much nonexistent. On opening nights, theaters have been known to host post-show soirees under tents, where patrons exchange opinions on what they’ve just seen — sometimes within earshot of the people who created it.
Each of the theaters makes an effort to offer family-friendly shows, often featuring young actors who are spending their summers in training programs. Parking is either free or cheap, and the price of tickets is also quite reasonable — especially compared with Broadway, where some of these productions invariably end up.
While their identities are distinctly different, what unites this quartet of companies is a pretty consistent level of quality. For a visitor from Boston, part of the fun of theater in the Berkshires is getting acquainted with talented stage performers who might not be household names in the 617 area code but have developed passionate followings in 413 land.
So here’s a guide to theater in the Berkshires. Sure, you might experience the occasional dud there, but over the next two months it just might be the place where you see some of the most exciting live performances you’ll experience all year.
WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL
Williamstown Theatre Festival carries itself with a trace of swagger, evinced by one of its marketing slogans: “WTF is going on.’’
Headed by artistic director Mandy Greenfield, the festival keeps a close eye on New York, and New York keeps a close eye on it. The festival is a summer destination not just for actors, directors, and playwrights but for producers — and regular theater mavens, for that matter — who are looking for the next big thing. Often enough, they find it.
Offering a mixture of world premieres and revivals at its Main Stage and smaller Nikos Stage, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has the track record and the producing clout to attract big-name stars. Doubtless part of the appeal for those stars — and for audiences, too — is the deep tradition that underpins this regional powerhouse. To get a taste of that, your first stop when you arrive at the glass-encased complex on the campus of Williams College should be the photo-lined wall just a few steps from the lobby.
There you’ll find an assemblage of famous faces who have graced the festival’s stages during its 65-year history, caught in the act of performance. You can study images of a young Gwyneth Paltrow dancing cheek-to-cheek with her mother, Blythe Danner, in 1991’s “Picnic’’; or a barefoot Audra McDonald with her arms around costar (and real-life husband) Will Swenson in a 2015 production of “A Moon for the Misbegotten’’; or an anguished Bradley Cooper in a scene from 2012’s riveting “The Elephant Man’’; or Tennessee Williams smiling from the festival lawn in 1983 with longtime artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos and members of the acting company, including a fresh-faced Christopher Reeve.
If the photos suggest the range you’ll find at Williamstown, so do the offerings presented in the past couple of summers. Last year, Mary-Louise Parker starred as a professor coping with a devastating cancer diagnosis in the world premiere of Adam Rapp’s “The Sound Inside’’; Parker will perform the play this fall on Broadway. A 2016 Williamstown production of Tennessee Williams’s “The Rose Tattoo’’ — starring Marisa Tomei as a passionate, grief-stricken Italian widow wrestling with a new relationship — is slated to begin performances on Broadway in September.
Martyna Majok’s “Cost of Living,’’ about the multilayered relationships between two severely disabled people and their caretakers, was developed at Williamstown and premiered there in 2016, then went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year. One of the festival’s five world premieres this summer, Bess Wohl’s “Grand Horizons,’’ starring JoBeth Williams, Jamey Sheridan, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson of “Modern Family,’’is already booked for a Broadway run this winter.
And this summer? The lineup includes the starry likes of Uma Thurman, André Braugher, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Jane Kaczmarek. Time — and the caliber of the work they do on WTF’s stages — will tell whether any of their performances get immortalized on that photo wall.
SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY
The name notwithstanding, it’s not all-Bard-all-the-time at this Lenox-based company.
In fact, plays by contemporary dramatists like Kenneth Lonergan, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lucy Kirkwood, and Donald Margulies will actually outnumber full-fledged productions of works by S&C’s namesake playwright this summer.
But there’s no question that the company’s identity is bound up with that fellow from Stratford-upon-Avon. Highly professional at a minimum and sometimes revelatory, S&C productions feature some of the most accomplished Shakespearean actors and directors around, including the company’s renowned founding artistic director, Tina Packer, and its current artistic director, Allyn Burrows.
Thanks to its array of theater education and training programs, the atmosphere on the company’s 33-acre campus is youthful, as if undergrads are strolling across the quad. That campus is home to two indoor theaters and two outdoor venues; the company also presents a smattering of shows at its longtime former location, The Mount, a country house that belonged to Edith Wharton.
Packer, for whom one of the indoor theaters is named, remains very active with the company. In fact, she’s helming the current production of Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery’’ and is slated to star in a workshop production of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus’’ in August. A couple of summers ago, at Burrows’s behest, the Shakespeare Garden was transformed into the outdoor Roman Garden Theatre. It made a suitably airy setting for “The Tempest,’’ starring Nigel Gore.
Beyond performance, Shakespeare also figures heavily into the two other key facets of S&C’s mission: training and education. Actors and directors from all over the world journey to Lenox to be schooled in the techniques of Shakespearean performance. The young person who guides you to a parking spot or hands over your ticket at the box office might be one of the actors taking part in the summer conservatory. The company also conducts workshops for teachers on how to turn their classrooms into places where students develop an appreciation for Shakespeare’s language and ideas.
Of course, the best way for you to gain such an appreciation is by seeing one of his plays — and there aren’t many places more equipped to make it a memorable experience than Shakespeare & Company.
BARRINGTON STAGE COMPANY
With its mainstage located in a former vaudeville house in downtown Pittsfield and its second stage in a former VFW building a couple of blocks away, Barrington Stage Company cannot boast the scenic surroundings of the other three. But what happens inside its theaters is often exceptional. In baseball terms, you’d say that Barrington Stage hits for average and hits for power.
If musicals are your thing, this is a Berkshires theater you should know. Under the leadership of artistic director Julianne Boyd, developing and producing first-class musicals has become a core part of Barrington Stage’s identity. Even if the musical is a warhorse you’ve seen many times before, chances are good that it will possess a renewed vitality when it unfolds at Barrington Stage, which in recent years has applied its magic touch to “Ragtime,’’ “The Pirates of Penzance,’’ “West Side Story,’’ “Guys and Dolls,’’ “Company,’’ and “On the Town,’’ which transferred to Broadway.
It was 2004’s endearing “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’’ that elevated Barrington Stage’s place on the national theater map. The “Spelling Bee’’ score was written by William Finn, a prominent Broadway composer who with Boyd cofounded the Musical Theatre Lab. It’s an incubator for new musicals where Finn has mentored and championed young composers, lyricists, and librettists. The works of emerging songwriters are presented each summer at Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, a BSC club named for him. Composer-lyricist Joe Iconis, who has recently made a splash with “Be More Chill,’’ developed his gonzo “Broadway Bounty Hunter’’ at the Musical Theatre Lab. After premiering at Barrington Stage, it begins performances off-Broadway on July 9.
But Barrington Stage’s efforts to create new musicals for the American theater don’t mean it’s a slouch when it comes to dramas. Its 2016 premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son,’’ a searing examination of racial inequities in law enforcement, went on to Broadway. And its relationship with dramatist Mark St. Germain (whose “Freud’s Last Session’’ and “Becoming Dr. Ruth,’’ then called “Dr. Ruth, All the Way,’’ both premiered at Barrington Stage) is so close that the 132-seat second stage is named after him. St. Germain’s “Gertrude and Claudius,’’ based on John Updike’s novel, is being presented on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in July.
BERKSHIRE THEATRE GROUP
When you drive out of downtown Stockbridge and head up East Street, within a minute or two you’ll see the Red Barn, materializing in your sightlines as if it suddenly emerged from Norman Rockwell’s paintbrush. The Red Barn houses the Unicorn Theatre, the smallest of the three venues that make up the Berkshire Theatre Group.
A hike of a hundred yards or so up a path will bring you to the Fitzpatrick Main Stage, a Stanford White-designed building that began life in the late 19th century as the Stockbridge Casino. But you’ll have to travel quite a bit farther — 12 miles, in fact — to reach the third Berkshire Theatre Group venue: the Colonial Theatre, a neo-classical yellow-brick gem located in downtown Pittsfield.
These contrasting architectural styles and far-flung locales tell the tale of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s complicated history. Headed by artistic director and CEO Kate Maguire, BTG has the curious distinction of being both the oldest — by far — and the youngest of the four major regional theater companies.
How so? Well, BTG is the product of a 2010 marriage between the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Colonial Theatre. (Even today, white lettering on the side of the Red Barn spells out the name Berkshire Theatre Festival.) Beginning operations in 1928 under the name Berkshire Playhouse, the Berkshire Theatre Festival played host to many a legendary performer, from Katharine Hepburn, James Cagney, Buster Keaton, and Gloria Swanson to Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino.
The Colonial Theatre, which was founded in 1903 and can also boast a glittering history, is typically BTG’s stage for large-scale musicals. In recent years, it has been an opulent setting for shows that have ranged from “The Who’s Tommy’’ to Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music’’ to the fluffy 1956 musical comedy “Bells Are Ringing.’’
As the larger of the two Stockbridge venues, the Fitzpatrick Main Stage is home to the company’s more high-profile productions, such as the 2017 revival of “Children of a Lesser God,’’ about the relationship between a therapist at a school for the deaf and a cleaning woman who had been a student there. “Children,’’ which went on to Broadway, starred Joshua Jackson and the largely unknown Lauren Ridloff. She had originally been hired not to perform in the show but as director Kenny Leon’s ASL teacher. Leon was so impressed with her presence that he cast her in a leading role. Special things have a way of happening in the Berkshires.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.