Thursday, May 29
STOCKBRIDGE — It begins with a simple gesture. A man, a retiring, gentle man named Aston, holds out a sack of freshly acquired clothing to a homeless man, Davies, who has, by invitation, become a live-in guest in Aston's attic room in an abandoned house that may or may not be owned by Aston's brother, Mick.

Before Davies can take possession of the bag, it is snatched by Mick, then taken back by Aston, grabbed again by Mick as Davies reaches for it in vain. Aston grabs the bag out of Mick's hands and gives it to Davies and so it goes, three men grabbing at, pushing away, this bag until, eventually, it winds up with Davies, who drops it as he walks away. In a final coda, a droplet of water falls into a bucket that is suspended by rope from the ceiling.

The sequence from "The Caretaker" is a masterstroke by its creator, playwright Harold Pinter. In the production "The Caretaker" is being given at Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre, it is a drop-in-the-bucket moment of sheer illumination and revelation — an acutely rhythmic statement about power, authority, need, assertion, territory, possession — in a play that is very much about assertion, authority and territory; about identity and place.

"The Caretaker" also is about survival amid a landscape of desolation and neglect.

The attic room (superbly designed by Jonathan Wentz and lit by Matthew E. Adelson) that is home to Aston (Tommy Schrider) is a monument to debris — old furniture, newspapers, kitchen appliances — with the exception of his own corner. His bed is neatly, tightly made. On a shelf above his bed, and on the floor beneath his bed, is a tidy array of small boxes and cans, suitcases — a place for everything, everything in its place.

  • Aston (played by Schrider as a mild-mannered, indrawn — for good reason — gentle, private man with a decent, well-meaning heart) has rescued from a brawl Davies (Jonathan Epstein), a homeless man who sees his rootless condition as everyone and everything, else's fault. He is an opportunist, trading on the charity of others, especially Aston, but gets only so far. "You get a bit out of your depth sometime," Mick says with withering understatement.

    Davies will push until he reaches the point of resistance and then retreats quickly. He is audacious and somewhat cunning, though not enough for his own good. He is no match for Mick (James Barry).

    With narrow, beady, piercing eyes; slick black hair that is combed back from his forehead; thin, tight lips; and a precise, crisp enunciation that exudes contempt and authority, Mick cruelly manipulates Davies from the very beginning. Mick's relationship with Aston is cautious, vaguely defined. It is as if there is a place in this relationship where Mick will not, cannot, go and so he turns on Davies.

    This is an unsettled world of ambitions one senses will never be realized — Mick plans to convert the upper floor of this house into a penthouse; Aston focuses on repairing a toaster plug and his plans to build a shed in the back yard; Davies is determined to get to Sidcup to claim his papers. But it's all running in place.

  • Eric Hill is at the top of his directorial form here. He has assembled a first-rate ensemble whose members work together seamlessly, which is no small feat given the authority of Epstein's richly nuanced performance. He is more than matched by Barry and Schrider as two brothers who are as bonded as they are apart.

    Pinter's 1959 play doesn't quite keep pace with this riveting production. The seams show. But even when "The Caretaker" approaches stasis or self-parody, it is sustained by these smartly crafted performances and an emotional environment that is as full and expansive as it is claustrophobic.

    Pinter offers no answers, no conventional resolution. "A poet's pleasure," E.B. White wrote, "is to withhold a little of his meaning to intensify by mystification." He might easily have had a playwright, Pinter, in mind. He might, were he still alive, have had this production in mind.

    To reach Jeffrey Borak: jborak@berkshireeagle.com; (413) 496-6212