STOCKBRIDGE, MASS. — When Irene Poole created the role of Dutch art historian and WWII war crimes prosecutor Geert Piller in the world premiere of Kate Cayley's "The Bakelite Masterpiece" in Toronto, she kept thinking of her longtime friend and fellow Canadian Kristen van Ginhoven. And for good reason.
The artistic director and cofounder of Berkshire-based WAM Theatre, van Ginhoven is the daughter of immigrants from postwar Holland. Her paternal grandfather, a father of seven, was a resistance fighter who was arrested by the Gestapo and executed by firing squad. Her mother's parents were shop owners who fed their starving countrymen on store credit they knew could not be repaid.
In Cayley's dramatic version of real events, suspected Dutch collaborator Han van Meegeren is accused of selling a painting by Johannes Vermeer to Nazi henchman Hermann Goering. He must prove his claim that he forged the artwork by painting another Vermeer 'masterpiece.' The Bakelite of the title refers to chemicals used to harden and falsely "age" the paints.
WAM will stage the play in a coproduction with Berkshire Theatre Group at BTG's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge. Directed by van Ginhoven and starring BTG alums and life partners David Adkins and Corinna May, it opens on Oct. 1 and runs through Oct. 23, with previews tonight and tomorrow Sept. 29 and 30.
Over the course of the two-hander set in a prison, van Meegeren paints a picture, not just of the beloved Dutch artist's masterpiece, but also of the consequences of a devastating conflict, where ordinary people struggle to survive through resistance and collusion and must come to terms with an aftermath of accusation and retribution.
"I had never thought about how a society would be so attached to art," said van Ginhoven during a break from rehearsals with May and Adkins in the Unicorn lobby. "So much of it reminds us of our past and of who we are."
Adkins and May are familiar faces to Berkshire audiences and known nationally through theater, TV and film. Since his debut in 1985 as a BTG apprentice — a program he led this summer — Adkins has performed in some two dozen plays at BTG, while May has acted in almost 30 productions at Shakespeare & Company.
During their 16 years as life partners they have appeared in a half dozen plays and readings together, most recently "Benefactors" at BTG. This is the first time they haven't portrayed a couple, noted May, who also teaches at Pace University.
May was raised an art lover, often visiting museums with her father. While exploring the truth behind the van Meegeren story, she found that, in WWII, some people traded art to buy food while others did so to get rich. She finds the play's psychology fascinating.
"There's a much more visceral curiosity in me about art," she explained, "the way this woman feels that art is as important as breathing. That's been a really beautiful gift and revelation."
For Adkins, the story "is not about Vermeer, it's about this relationship," he said. "And of that time during the rebuilding, when the people in Europe were trying to take back their lives. Everybody in a war like that is in an act of survival, trying to stay alive."
He believes people will feel a lot of different things about van Meegeren. "That is the mark of a good play," he said, "it's not cut and dried."
Vermeer, van Ginhoven suggests, is the conduit to the question of survival. In all the world's conflicts, past and present, people turn against each other to survive. "That's what makes the play timeless," van Ginhoven said.
But wars end.
"When we're all sitting there in the rubble, we're neighbors and have got to learn to live together," said May. "To rebuild civilization we have to be civil again. And how on earth do we do that? Art is one of those things that unite us and make us greater than our basest selves."
That collective effort to lift each other up also ties into WAM's core mission. Each season, WAM contributes a portion of its ticket sales to programs that support women and girls. This year's beneficiaries are the Berkshire Immigrant Center and Suzi Banks Baum's work with female artists in Armenia.
A Mass Humanities grant has enabled "Talkback" discussions to follow most performances.
"We go to the theater and try on lives and situations that we don't necessarily go through in our ordinary lives," May said. "We need to be reminded that there are things we should stand up for."
On Stage ...
What: Berkshire Theatre Group and WAM Theatre present "The Bakelite Masterpiece" by Kate Cayley with David Adkins & Corinna May
Where: The Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge, Mass.
When: Thursdays through Sundays, Sept. 29 to Oct. 23. Opening night, Oct. 1
Tickets: $50, Previews $48 (Sept. 29 & 30)