STOCKBRIDGE — As Shem Bitterman's "The Stone Witch" opens, an aspiring — and, as it turns out, extremely talented — young children's book writer and illustrator is meeting with a prominent editor who is impressed enough by the young man that she suggests she might be willing to take a look at the manuscript he's brought with him.
There is the suggestion of a quid pro quo. Not for want of trying, the editor, Clair Forlorni, has been waiting impatiently for 12 years for the next — and, in all likelihood, last — book by a grand master of children's literature, an octogenarian award-winner named Simon Grindberg, who lives in virtual reclusion in a well=-appointed "cabin" and studio in the woods, far from the madding crowd. Clair wants the writer, Peter, to work with Simon on completing the book. "Think of it more as being a sounding board for him to work ideas off, in an uncredited role, mind you," she tells Peter.
Peter agrees to take on the assignment but there is one more thing. "I should warn you," Clair says. "Simon's a little unusual."
Indeed, especially as played by Judd Hirsch in the evocatively mounted world premiere of "The Stone Witch" at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage. Simon spends his time napping, drinking, swimming, sketching a bit here and there, growling at Peter, trying to offer advice. Through it all, Simon is pursued by his worst demons and monsters, projections not only of his own creations on the pages of his books but also within the construct of his mind as the wear and tear of age, celebrity, genius, and legacy catch up with him.
Hirsch's work is etched more in mannerism than manner in a performance that is built on jittery, sudden impulse as it struggles to find clarity and solid footing.
Peter is not in an easy place. he has idolized Simon, admired him; is inspired and motivated by him. He's brought his manuscript with him in the hope he can learn something from this master. What he finds is an idiosyncratic curmudgeon who is trying hard not to let go even when time and circumstance are telling him otherwise.
There is the suggestion throughout "The Stone Witch" that as Simon nears the end of his life, the publishing world is getting ready to make room for the next Simon Grindberg. It is evident from the get-go that Clair (sharply played by Kristin Griffith), who discovered Simon, sense she may well have found his successor.
These are two men possessed by the need to create. The play's final moment suggests that Peter (played by Rupert Ginn with a credibility that stretches to the limits of the role) is about to learn for himself what that really means.
For all the work that's been done on "The Stone Witch" in the five years since Bitterman and director Steve Zuckerman began collaborating on the play, it feels unfinished, particularly in its exploration of the relationship between Simon and Peter. There is an underlying sense of emotional detachment; very little to make us care one way or another about either of these two men.
In fact, Zuckerman's production belongs less to its actors than to its designers — especially scenic and projection art content designer Yael Pardess and lighting designer Shawn E. Boyle who, between them, have create a whimsical, lushly imaginative setting where wild things live; a setting that makes real all the dark and frightful places we don't want to go.
What: "The Stone Witch" by Shem Bitterman. Directed by Steve Zuckerman; original music by Roger Bellon, Bellchant Music
With: Judd Hirsch, Rupak Ginn, Kristin Griffith
Who: Berkshire Theatre Group
Where: Fitzpatrick Main Stage, 83 E. Main St., Stockbridge
When: Through Aug. 20. Evenings — Monday through Thursday at 7; Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday at 2
Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes (no intermission)
How: 413-997-4444; berkshiretheatregroup.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office — 111 South St., Pittsfield; or Fitzpatrick Main Stage box office in Stockbridge