Barrington Stage Company: ‘Dancing Lessons’ At play in the garden of what-ifs
By Jeffrey Borak
Berkshire Eagle Staff
PITTSFIELD -- Playwright Mark St. Germain’s imagination is at play again in the garden of what-ifs, only this time, instead of historical figures, he’s created characters who have, until now, lived only in his mind.
St. Germain has taken audiences inside the cluttered Harlem home of the Collyer brothers; imagined conversations between Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford on a camping trip, C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud in Freud’s study and literary giants F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway having at it in Fitzgerald’s Hollywood apartment. He’s brought us into Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s living room as she looks back on her life.
Now, in his newest play, "Dancing Lessons" -- which begins its world premiere engagement tonight at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage -- St. Germain’s what-ifs give us two wholly original creations: Ever, a young man with Asperger’s syndrome, and Senga, a Broadway dancer sidelined by possibly career-ending injuries.
Directed by BSC’s founding artistic director Julianne Boyd, the two-character play stars John Cariani as Ever and Page Davis as Senga.
Speaking on behalf of St. Germain -- who, due to illness, was unable to attend an interview with Boyd, Cariani and Davis in the upstairs conference room at BSC’s Octagon House offices, just a half block from the mainstage on Union Street -- Boyd said the idea for "Dancing Lessons" germinated when St. Germain met a high-functioning autistic friend of a friend.
"Mark was struck by this young man’s ability to function in the world," Boyd said. "Mark also was friends with an injured dancer."
He began entertaining the notion of what might happen if an injured dancer and a young man with Asperger’s were brought together.
The playwright plunged into the world of Asperger’s and autism. "He did a lot a lot of research," Boyd said.
St. Germain showed a draft of the first two scenes to Boyd. Encouraged by her response, he finished the play and with Davis and Cariani on board, "Dancing Lessons" had a reading in September at Barrington Stage. Since then, there have been other readings -- including one in March at MCLA (Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) in North Adams -- and consultations with various experts in the field to make certain Ever’s behavior in particular was authentic and true.
Davis says she connected with Senga the moment she read the part in auditions.
"I’m a Broadway dancer," the "Chicago" veteran said, "an injured Broadway dancer and I’m at an age that I begin to wonder at times if I’ll be able to dance the way I know that I can.
"The lines are easy to learn. The material flows freely. There are times I feel the role has been written for me."
Cariani has a cousin with Asperger’s but he’s also done his own research.
"That’s when the freedom came to me," Cariani said, "understanding that no two autistic people are the same."
Cariani, who many may recognize from his days on "Law & Order," is perhaps best known these days as the man who wrote the charming, widely produced play, "Almost, Maine." His newest play, "Love / Sick," was produced in spring at Theaterworks in Hartford, Conn.
Cariani made his Barrington Stage acting debut last summer as Dogberry in "Much Ado About Nothing." Boyd instinctively felt he was the actor they needed for "Dancing Lessons."
Cariani and St. Germain met over lunch.
"When they came back," Boyd said, "Mark agreed. We had our Ever."
The project, Davis and Cariani agree, has been truly collaborative.
"Julie is very open to ideas, to our trying things and then she’ll shape and focus," Davis said. "Mark is the same way."
They are all determined to get it right; to be authentic.
"You can drive yourself nuts trying to make sure everything is perfect," Davis said. "At some point, you have to let go."
Boyd, Cariani, Davis and St. Germain are hopeful that audiences will find the same appeal in Ever and Senga that they do; that, as a result, "Dancing Lessons" will have a long and healthy Barrington Stage after-life. This production already is on the 2014-15 season schedule at Theaterworks in Hartford. After that ?
"We hope people will come and see themselves in one character or another," said Davis.
"This is a romantic comedy," Boyd said. "We want people to come and laugh. Let’s just say this is a comedy with serious overtones." On stage
What: "Dancing Lessons" by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Julianne Boyd
Who: Barrington Stage Company
When: Now through Aug. 24. Eves.: 7 Tue., Wed.; 8 Thu.-Sat. Mats.: 2 Wed., Fri.; 5 Sun.
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield
Tickets: $20 and up
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; at the box office -- 30 Union St.
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