Ruth Bass: Theater, new and historic, nudges the brain


RICHMOND — Just when you think you can't stand another minute of politics, it's the very subject that hits the stage in Stockbridge, while a Pittsfield troupe delves intensely into the issue of what can happen in a routine traffic stop, an event that has been quite political these days.

Both productions — the one a romping musical about the early 20th century and the other painfully contemporary — are worth seeing. If you only like being entertained and having a few laughs, choose "Fiorello" at the incredibly inviting Unicorn Theater at Berkshire Theatre Festival.

If you want to be entertained, moved and forced to think, take on "American Son," a play making its premiere at Barrington Stage. For ups and downs, try both.

Fiorello LaGuardia's political life wasn't, in most ways, much like what we are going through these days. He did fight through the establishment to get elected to Congress, but once there, he defied his colleagues on a number of fronts, and enraged them and thousands of parents by insisting that America needed to draft soldiers and get them ready to fight. To reinforce his stance, he enlisted and fought in World War I.

Son of immigrants, his father Italian and his mother Italian and Jewish, he had real sympathy for the hardships faced by the people arriving at Ellis Island and railed against policies that separated families. Some things may change, but at the same time, it seems everything stays the same.

He was best known as longtime mayor of New York, long enough ago so many people don't know or remember that he built the New York airport named for him, as well as modernizing the city's operations, including the subway system.

When it came to the voters, the often radical LaGuardia drew support from socialists, from the downtrodden he had helped and from the Republican Party that he had presented with victories.

Snippets of all this are part of the Stockbridge production, including the legendary time when the mayor of New York read the comics on the radio on Sunday mornings because newspapers were on strike. But"Fiorello" also gives you song and dance, especially the delightful "Politics and Poker," quite a bit of history and a quick look at the inside of the raucous politics of the early 20th century.

At "American Son," rollicking is not part of the picture, although the play has its humorous moments. This is, as artistic director Julianne Boyd says at the outset, a play the community needs to see. That's why she set up discussion groups about the subject matter.

A rookie cop, a mixed-race couple with plenty of education, a black son and a lot of family issues, a veteran cop and a traffic stop add up to drama that's very much of the 21st century.

Boyd believes this new play should emerge into the light — way beyond Union Street in Pittsfield. And it might well do exactly that, illuminating some dark corners in our society.

Ruth Bass celebrates the Fourth of July in Richmond. Her web site is The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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