The 'buzz' show of the summer: Dorset Theatre Festival to premiere Theresa Rebeck's newest work
DORSET, VT. — The process of developing a new play can be similar to bringing a baby into the world: even after a long gestation period and the moment of birth, there's still work to be done.
Since artistic and executive director Dina Janis took the reins six seasons ago, Dorset Theatre Festival has gradually nurtured these precious moments of delivery onto the stage, to the tune of at least one every year. In 2016, its offering will be acclaimed playwright Theresa Rebeck's new work, "The Way of the World."
The play, which Rebeck herself will direct, is a present-day restating of William Congreve's sardonic tour de force, which was first produced in 1700. Set in the hyper-rich Hamptons, it tells the tale of a good-hearted heiress who has fallen victim to the advances of an unscrupulous party boy.
After he callously seduces her aunt, making the older woman a symbol of public mockery, their romance seems dead. But his insistence on winning back the well-heeled leading lady fuels the summer's gossip in the land of the 1-percenters.
Janis said the play has already earned accolades and brought extra resources as a result, which will enhance the production. "The Way of the World" was recently bestowed with the Edgerton New Play Award, which supports the production of particularly promising new works.
"The Edgerton award is highly prestigious in the realm of new plays, and allowed us to bring on a dramaturg to work with the playwright," Janis said. "We can now have two weeks of rehearsal, one in New York City with full cast, dramaturg and a focus on the final rewrite, and one full extra week of rehearsals here in Vermont."
A dramaturg is a literary editor who works closely with the playwright and others and focuses on research and development of a play. It's a resource typically not available in smaller regional theaters, such as Dorset.
Rebeck said the idea for "The Way of the World" came to her while working on her play "Seminar" with the late English actor and director Alan Rickman. Rickman recommended she consider some of the old Restoration-period comedies for finding something worthwhile and relatable.
Restoration plays of the late-17th and early 18th centuries are also historically noteworthy, in that the period ushered in the era of women instead of men acting in female roles, and further developing strong lead characters.
Rebeck added that she was especially struck by Congreve's original work, and that she had seen a production of it years earlier starring award-winning English actors Michael Kitchen and Amanda Root.
"I was quite taken with how mean but human that play and other Restoration comedies are, and the world of excessive wealth and spiritual catastrophe they inhabit," Rebeck said. "They're astonishingly contemporary for plays written 300 years ago. The question at the center of the genre, whether love can exist in a world that demeans it is very powerful for me, personally."
Rebeck's most recent novel, "I'm Glad About You," addressed similar questions, especially around the "dehumanization of individuals in the fierce competitiveness of the contemporary demimonde," she said.
Rebeck explained that another aspect she admired of Restoration comedy was the "sharpness of the intellectual gamesmanship, centered on the power of wit, which feels both classical and contemporary."
"It was a lot of fun to write, and gave me a greater understanding of how truly timeless the art of conversation is," Rebeck said. "Ultimately, I loved how the world of Restoration comedy is both deeply funny and deeply painful, and I decided I wanted to explore that balance."
Getting that exploration on stage, Janis noted, is a process that can take years from the inception of the original idea.
"It often begins with ideas that lead to writing," Janis said. "Then it may go through several public readings and possibly re-writing. After that the play must be workshopped with actors to get it on its feet. Finally, the design team must weigh in before an audience sees it for the first time."
Janis said that Rebeck — who is also known for her hit NBC TV series "Smash" — has staged several plays at Dorset and has been "not only a great supporter of our work, but also an inspiration to work with because she brings her A-game and everyone around her rises to that level."
The show will also get a major boost for a new play by starring Tony-winning Kristine Nielsen, along with a group of A-list Broadway actors.
"With Teresa writing and directing, and an absolute rock star cast and crew, 'The Way of the World' is going to be our 'buzz' show for the summer," Janis said with palpable excitement in her voice. "It's smart, sexy, edgy and funny."
ON STAGE ...
What: 'The Way of the World,' by Theresa Rebeck
When: Running Thursday, July 28 through Aug. 13.
Where: Dorset Theatre Festival, 104 Cheney Rd., Dorset, Vt.
Information: 802-867-2223 or dorsettheatrefestival.org
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist