Family secrets on stage

Thursday July 12, 2012

Summertime in the Berkshires means an influx of tourists, biting insects, and plays where a rich dysfunctional family meets at the summerhouse to disclose painful secrets.

Granted they can get annoying but all three are vital to the ecosystem of the county.

I don't generally mind the presence of tourists unless I am one myself, in which case they become instantly insufferable. I mean really, who wants to run into tourists when you're on vacation?

Mosquitoes and their ilk have ensured that the smell I associate most with summertime will always be citronella instead of sunblock.

But, man, why are there so many plays about a rich dysfunctional family meeting up at their summerhouse to disclose painful secrets?

Maybe this genre is just disproportionately popular in the Berkshires where, on any given weekend in August, upwards of two dozen summerhouses will have families meeting up to disclose painful secrets.

Maybe a disproportionate number of playwrights come from dysfunctional families that unloaded their painful secrets while at the summerhouse.

Whatever the reason, I can't deny that the genre does have a long and illustrious history, going back through the works of Chekov to the ancient Greeks.

(Shakespeare experimented with the form, but his always ended with a few eyes gauged out and most of the family dead.)

When you think about it, most of Greek drama is about dysfunctional families: Oedipus, Medea, Agamemnon. Though, granted, the latter replaced most of the painful secrets with painful knives. Unfortunately the modern iterations tend to leave out the knives and instead end with the summerhouse getting sold.

The overabundance of plays of this sort has driven me away from most of the local theater festivals. I still love theater, but I just ask that when you hold the mirror up to nature you hold it at an angle that shows me something I couldn't see just as easily without said mirror.

But if you are looking forward to an exciting summer of painful family secrets, you can sure you're getting the most of out of your theater going experience by using the following check list to make sure none of the key tropes have been thoughtlessly omitted:

n Is one character dead before the beginning of the play?

n Is a piece of family lore mentioned repeatedly in the first act?

n Does it turn out to be a lie by the final act?

n Is one character clearly based on the author?

n Is the most sympathetic character not a member of the dysfunctional family? (neighbor, gardener, married to the author's character)

n Is someone having an affair?

n Does someone else already know about it?

n Was the family rich but now experiencing financial trouble?

n Is the house in danger of being sold or otherwise lost?

If you've answered "yes" to fewer than half these questions, you should demand a refund on your ticket.

While we're on the subject of Summer Theater, there's an unwritten rule of the Berk shires which I think needs to finally get written down because I see it getting broken more and more.

The rule is as follows: If you see a famous person in the Berkshires here for a summer theater program/concert series/witness protection, you pretend you don't know they're famous.

You do not ask for their autograph. You do not ask them what Jon Stewart is like in real life. You do not follow them through Stop and Shop taking pictures with your cell phone.

Here's a quick quiz to make sure you aren't breaking the rule. Think about how your behavior will sound if you tell the story to someone later on.

Try to make sure it's going to come out roughly 30 percent about seeing someone famous and 70 percent about how cool you are for not caring they're famous.

Here's an example:

Correct: "I saw that guy from that Aaron Sorkin show at the toy store today. Did you know they have chocolate covered gummy bears?"

Incorrect: "I saw that guy from that Aaron Sorkin show at the toy store today. Then I stared at him from behind a stand of puppets for like 30 minutes until the girl behind the desk chased me out with a plastic sword."

Do you see the difference? The difference is if someone asks you later on "and did you act like a creepy freak?"

The answer should be "no."

Come to think of it, the answer should always be "no" regardless who was involved.

So please abide by this simple rule to ensure that we can all enjoy the season and that, years from now, you don't have to reveal to your dysfunctional family that you are the one who ruined the Berkshires for everyone.

Write to Sean McHugh at


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