PITTSFIELD - The funeral of an internationally renowned woman conductor triggers a wave of memories - many of them painful and unkind - for an internationally renowned mezzo in Susan Dworkin's uneven new play, "The Old Mezzo," which is having its world premiere at Berkshire Museum in a production from WAM Theatre.
The diva, Alyssa (played by Eileen Schuyler with a stylized patrician formality that wears thin by the end of the evening's intermissionless 80 minutes), has stayed away from the conductor's funeral, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the four prize students who have gathered nervously in Alyssa's studio for a master class. She makes a sweeping entrance, radiant and ageless, and promptly informs her students that this master class will involve enacting a play she has written about the politics of singing. In fact, her play turns out to be the story of her life, struggling with her parents - her father (Ryan Winkles) was a church choirmaster - and her overweight to find her niche in a totalitarian society as a singer while her best friend, Marcelle (Erin Ouellette), chooses another, more difficult musical career path, one leading to the podium and a baton.
Alyssa and Marcelle share much, including a determination to survive artistically, each in their own way, in a culture that suppresses artistic expression and artists. They make their way as friends until circumstance brings all that to an end.
There's a certain calculated artlessness in the performances that surround Schuyler's - professional actors, as is Schuyler, portraying students who are untrained impromptu actors, reading lines they've never seen before, dealing with emotions and experiences that are alien.
Director Kristen van Ginhoven and her designers have made splendid use of Berkshire Museum's limiting stage, defining it cleanly and sharply as a playing space that, in this context, divides effectively into segmented playing areas.
But the play itself moves in fits and starts as it pushes toward an ending that is hopeful, optimistic and somewhat artificially manipulated.