"The Stone Witch," at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage, takes the measure of greatness and legacy
STOCKBRIDGE — Actor Judd Hirsch says that when he first read the script for Shem Bitterman's "The Stone Witch," he was struck by the playwright's description of Hirsch's character, Simon. "A gnome," Hirsch said lightly. "A squat gnome. I'm six-feet. I figured I could play him if I squat down. I got shorter and shorter as I read on."
He laughed heartily and so did his creative partners in "The Stone Witch" — Bitterman and director Steve Zuckerman — during a pre-rehearsal interview at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage, where the play began a four-week run Saturday, after a series of previews.
Hirsch, 81, plays a hugely successful, award-winning, reclusive children's book writer and illustrator who has been slow to finish his first book in years. Simon is visited at his remote cabin in the woods by an aspiring young writer named Peter (Rupak Ginn) who idolizes the author and has been dispatched by Simon's publisher (Kristin Griffith) to help Simon finish what, in all likelihood, will be his last book.
This engagement is the world premiere of a play Bitterman began working on roughly five years ago. It's the eighth play Bitterman and Zuckerman have worked on together.
"He's an incredibly instinctive writer," Zuckerman said. "He writes because he has to. It just pours out of him."
Zuckerman sees his job as smoothing out what he calls the "roughness" in Bitterman's writing. "He writes very cinematically," Zuckerman said, 'and so sometimes stagecraft can be a challenge."
For Bitterman, who has written screenplays for Disney, DreamWorks, Warner Bros. and several independent studios, theatrical writing is "always a draft. It's not literature. I always feel (playwriting) is a collaboration. A play is meant to go to a director, to designers."
"The Stone Witch" has had several readings over the five years Bitterman and Zuckerman have been developing the play. But they are quick to acknowledge that much of what audiences will see on BTG's Fitzpatrick Main Stage is a result of Hirsch's presence.
"The first scene and the final scene didn't exist (in their present form) until Judd came on board," Zuckerman said. "He's been a big part of this collaboration."
Hirsch and Zuckerman agree that Bitterman's presence through the rehearsal period has been invaluable.
"If you get a sudden idea," Hirsch said, "Shem is right there and he will go and find a way to work it in."
"He needs to be here, rewriting lines, putting in whole new scenes," Zuckerman said.
Bitterman's writing for the stage has tended to cover a variety of subjects and genres; often with social and political themes.
"He has a very strong voice as a playwright," Zuckerman said. "Every play of his is a new journey. There's not one play of is that you can look at and immediately recognize as a Shem Bitterman play."
In "The Stone Witch," Bitterman deals with genius and greatness; with time and memory; success and legacy.
His inspiration, he says, began with illustrator Brad Holland, whose work Bitterman first noticed at the Society of Illustrators on E. 63rd Street in New York and has since revisited at the Norman Rockwell Museum, where Holland is part of the current featured exhibition, "Rockwell and Realism in an Abstract World."
Two other elements shaped Bitterman's thinking. One is a story about a stone witch that Bitterman made up when his son asked his father to tell him a scary story. The other stems from Bitterman's reflections on figures in the arts who, for him, loomed, still loom, larger than life, two specifically — Stella Adler, co-founder of the Group Theatre in the 1930s and founder of her own influential training studio for actors; and American filmmaker Carroll Ballard, whose work includes "The Black Stallion," "Fly Away Home" and "Never Cry Wolf" but who hasn't made a movie since "Duma" in 2004.
"Ballard was such a special figure,"Bitterman said. "He lived in the woods. He was kind of a loser as a kid.
"I have huge affection for these big people who live in the world and don't quite fit."
"(When) these big people eventually die," Hirsch said, "it becomes a question of how they live on, how we remember them."
"You are going to see this character at the end of his life," Zuckerman said. "The play is about a guy who achieved success early in his life. It's about Simon's immortality."
"None of us understands what greatness is. You have to live the life," Hirsch said. "Greatness is not understandable unless you are great. So, there is a whole part of the play that's not quite understandable. You're asking 'how? why?'"
"The play ends on a note of ambiguity," said Zuckerman. "I like that."
What: "The Stone Witch" by Shem Bitterman. Directed by Steve Zuckerman
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group — in association with Darlene Kaplan Entertainment and Brierpatch Productions
Where: Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge
When: Now through Aug. 20. Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 2
How: 413-977-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office, 111 South St., Pittsfield, and Fitzpatrick Main Stage box office