Like other arts institutions in the Berkshires the Williamstown Theatre Festival has had its share of ups and downs with what has been looking increasingly like a revolving door for artistic directors. The late Roger Rees, who created some especially intriguing programming, only lasted three years, Nicholas Martin, beset by illness, only two, and Jenny Gersten three. Most recently the programming seemed to be losing its luster. I for one began to find it harder and harder to find productions I was interested in seeing, much less writing about. The arrival this season of yet another new Artistic Director, Mandy Greenfield, came as a signal to start coming back. Ms. Greenfield arrives in Williamstown with a distinguished record as Artistic Producer at the Manhattan Theater Club, where her productions have been seen as favorable to rising playwrights and exciting in themselves.
Does it imply too much complacent comfort that I, only a few minutes into WTF’s compelling production of A Streeetcar Named Desire, leaned back and said to myself, “This is it. They’re on track. I’m just going to follow this along.” The first bit of business between the Negro Woman and Eunice, vividly played by Crystal Lucas-Perry and Jennifer Engstrom, was magical, and it stayed that way throughout the entire production. The Williamstown Theatre Festival, under its new Artistic Director, Jenny Gersten, could not have gotten off to a better start: a great classic play in a great production. It was clearly intended to be a revisionist effort, with Sam Rockwell’s entirely un-Brando-like Stanley, and its claustrophobic set, crammed with the banal accoutrements of American life in the late 1940s. But after Omar Sangare’s treatment only a few months ago on the same stage, it seemed conventional, not to the detriment of either production.
Often, whether you’re a theatre-lover, an aspiring playwright, or a social historian, you’ll learn more from second-rate literature than you will from the masters. When we were students, we founded a Paul de Kock Reading Society, and to our amazement, we found that we were not reading soft-core trash, but an interesting and detailed commentary on nineteenth century Parisian society. Paul de Kock’s more literal mind absorbed observations which were ignored by Balzac and Flaubert, and even by a naturalist like Zola later on. I’m not implying that either George Kelly was second-rate. He was known as a perfectionist, and his work shows good taste and serious craft, but he was obviously no O’Neill. In The Torch-Bearers we learn far more about the Little Theatre Movement than Chekhov teaches us about Symbolist drama in The Seagull, for example.