Barrington Stage Company's festival of new short plays satisfies

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PITTSFIELD >> In Tom Coash's "Thin Air," one of two monologues in Barrington Stage Company's fifth annual "10x10 New Play Festival" — an anthology of 10 new short plays by 10 different playwrights that opened over the weekend at BSC's St. Germain Stage — a young female tightrope walker is standing on the platform, poised to take her first steps onto the wire after a traumatic experience that has claimed the life of her professional partner and husband.

The young woman, named Bird (pitch-perfectly played by Madison Micucci), is trying to regain her balance, her center not only on the wire but in her life. Her trust, mastery, self-confidence and poise undermined, she must face all her fears and uncertainties as she takes her first steps into a newly reshaped future.

The future — its uncertainties and mysteries — is very real for a British librarian during a blitz in 1940 London in Emily Taplin Boyd's haunting, meticulously crafted "The Still Point of the Turning World."

In this second-act opener, also a monologue, the versatile and resourceful Peggy Pharr Wilson appears as a librarian who, as her sector of London comes under a withering attack from German aircraft, makes a calculation that has fateful, irreversible consequences.

The choice she makes is rooted in honor, in national and professional pride, in her passion for "homeland" poets, especially Yeats and particularly T.S. Eliot, whose own narration of passages from "Burnt Norton," the first of his "Four Quartets" and the poem from which this play draws its title, forms part of the production's sound mosaic.

The clarity and grace with which Wilson graphs the wit, the guarded, understated English passion, the resources with which the librarian plays the hand that fate has dealt her hints at the complexity of the paradoxes at the heart of Eliot's poem and brings us face to face with profound, fundamental questions about life and what comes after.

To one degree or another, these two memorable monologues are emblematic of this year's "10x10" — plays that talk about connections, missed or made; the choices we make and the consequences of those choices; make us ponder how much we are willing to dare in order to live our lives.

"10x10" gets off to a charming start with Steven Korbar's "When Babies Fly" in which two strangers, passengers (appealingly played by Kelley Rae O'Donnell and Jake Keefe) seated next to each other on a red-eye flight from New York to London, find they have much in common when a a screeching baby somewhere behind them upsets the atmosphere in the cabin. There's a sort of familiar big-screen rom-com convenience to the play's ending but the chemistry and authenticity of Keefe and O'Donnell's work holds together throughout.

Connections are at a near-breaking point between a longtime unmarried couple, Carol (Micucci) and Mark (Matt Neely) in Ana Nogueira's delightfully zany and antic "Dr. Kessler," in which a crazy-like-a-fox, trampoline-bouncing brain chemistry therapist (a wonderfully idiosyncratic O'Donnell) who employs extreme measures to bring bruised couples together. That this whimsical two-scene works as well as it does is due in no small measure to the efforts of its three players.

Joseph Samuel Wright's thoughtful "The Book of Ruth" finds two women, Grace (Micucci) and Ruth (O'Donnell), living in a rural mountain community outside Knoxville, Tenn. coming to a fateful point in their relationship as Grace finds it increasingly difficult to deal with the isolation. the whispers, the sideways glances, especially when a young man in town shows signs of interest in her. The play, especially in performance, never fully deals with its central issue, which has to do with loving someone enough to set them free. It's an admirable effort, nonetheless.

The program's more successful plays carry with them an overall sense of completeness. When plays fall short — as they do in Kelly Younger's "Best Lei'd Plans" in which two mothers-in-law (Wilson and O'Donnell, utterly delicious together) bond at the wedding of their respective children and plot to make sure the marriage succeeds; Scott C. Sickles' "Turtles and Bulldogs" about an unexpected reunion at a cemetery of two men, 35 years after their days together in high school; "Eight Seconds" by Sean Harris Oliver, a well-intentioned piece about a father, his son and bronco riding; Andrew Dolan's "'04: A Muse of Fire," whose title is far more clever than the play itself, which has to do with the extremes to which a Boston Red Sox fan will go when his New York Yankees-loving soon-to-be ex-wife converts their children to her cause; and Ann Marie Shea's "Best in Class," about a divorced couple at an unusual school reunion and how their "offspring," separated by the custody agreement, scheme to get back together — it's chiefly because the pieces are more like sketches; ideas that play better in the mind than on the stage.

What is uniform throughout is the quality of the direction — Julianne Boyd and John Miller-Stephany split those duties; and the skills of a hugely resourceful and appealing acting ensemble — which, in addition to the previously mentioned Wilson, Micucci, O'Donnell, Neely and Keefe, includes Andrew May. This is a company of actors who make telling connections and meaningful choices. Nice.

THEATER REVIEW

What: 10x10 New Play Festival

Writers: Emily Taplin Boyd, Tom Coash, Andrew Dolan, Steven Korbar, Ana Noguiera, Sean Harris Oliver, Ann Marie Shea, Scott C. Sickles, Joseph Samuel Wright, Kelly Younger.

Directors: Julianne Boyd, John Miller-Stephany

With: Jake Keefe, Andrew May, Madison Micucci, Matt Neely, Kelley Rae O'Donnell, Peggy Phar Wilson

Designers: Dylan Uremovich, lighting; Lucas Pawelski, sound; Emily King, costumes; Lars Nelson, sets

Who: Barrington Stage Company

Where: St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield

When: Now through Feb. 28. Evenings — Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30; Feb. 21 at 7. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 3

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

Tickets: $30, $25

How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org


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