STOCKBRIDGE -- Summer in the Berkshires is no camp for actor Randy Harrison.
This is Harrison's sixth summer at the 82-year-old Berkshire Theatre Festival. In that time he's been pushed to suicide by an authoritarian head nurse at a state mental institution; suffered the deadly consequences of syphilis; led a profligate, infuriating life as an enfant terrible musical genius; been a tortured youth who blinds six horses in a stable; played a wretch who is periodically whipped and permanently tethered to the end of a long, long rope.
This summer he's a decaying, legless old man stuffed in a trash can. He is playing Nagg to Tanya Dougherty's Nell in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame," which opens in BTF's Unicorn Theatre Saturday evening at 8 after a week of previews.
Also in the cast of director Eric Hill's production of Beckett's bleak comedy are David Chandler and Mark Corkins as the chief protagonists -- the blind, wheelchair-bound Hamm, and his son, Clov, who attends his father slavishly and keeps threatening to leave.
"Endgame" is a long one-act play that Beckett wrote in French and then translated into English. It premiered in its original French version, "Fin de partie," on April 3, 1957 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Its first English-language performance was Jan. 28, 1958 at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York's Greenwich Village.
"I enjoy the challenge this play presents," Hill said in a brief telephone interview from his home in Richmond.
Hill says he is particularly drawn to Beckett's language and the play's shifting realities.
This is Harrison's second go-round with Beckett at BTF. He played the ironically named Lucky in Anders Cato's production of "Waiting for Godot" two summers ago, also in the Unicorn.
"I love Beckett. He's so funny, smart. His language affects me emotionally," Harrison said during a pre-rehearsal interview at BTF's Lavan Center. He was joined by Dougherty, a second-year graduate student in the MFA acting program at Brandeis University, where Hill teaches.
"I've never done anything like this before," Dougherty said. "Beckett asks the audience difficult questions and doesn't offer answers. His characters face huge issues of life."
In "Endgame," the issues are as huge as issues can get -- life, death.
Dougherty says she's been helped by the rhyhms of Beckett's language.
"Rhythm is the only way I could memorize Lucky's speech," Harrison said, referring to the normally silent Lucky's vocal outburst in "Waiting for Godot," a monumental, tour de force monologue built on what sound like nonsense syllables.
"Beckett gives you so much, though not necessarily what you need."
While there is an often tense dynamic in the relationship between Hamm and Clov, who occupy the bulk of the play, the relationship between Nagg and Bell is quite different.
"There is a whole history of young love that we keep for ourselves," Harrison said. "(Nagg) is cold, he's hungry, he's horny. They're reaching to touch each other."
"They're dependent on each other," Dougherty added. "If they didn't have each other, they'd die. If the other weren't there, they would die. The other is there to trust, to cherish, to love."
Harrison and Dougherty say that Hill has been a more-than-reliable pilot through the often unfathomable channels of Beckett's play.
"He's so articulate about the play and Beckett," Harrison said. "He is so clear and that makes you excited to work on (the play)."
"He encourages us to play but within parameters," Dougherty said. "He particularly makes you think about the physical, your body."
"Beckett can be very heavy if you don't watch out," Hill said. "So, I want (my actors) to play, to have fun.
"I want to have the actors figure it out. I'm there to keep them on track."
"You read about these situations," Harrison said about "Endgame" and the dilemmas facing its four characters. "You see it from the outside and it makes sense. You can't imagine what it's like, though, to be inside.
"It's nothing you've ever dealt with before as an actor."
If you go...
What: "Endgame" by Samuel Beckett
Who: Berkshire Theatre Festival
When: Tonight through July 24.
Where: Unicorn Theatre, Route 7, Stockbridge
How: (413) 298-5576; www.berkshiretheatre.org; at the Main Stage box office
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