BENNINGTON, Vt. — A kind of grace has settled over some of the area's theaters in their final offerings of the summer. I'm thinking in particular of "Before the Meeting" at Williamstown Theratre Festival and "Curve of Departure" at Chester Theatre Company. Add to that David Budbill's "Judevine" at Oldcastle Theatre Company, where a revival of this signature offering is closing out the summer portion of Oldcastle's season.
Cleveland-born David Budbill, who died Sept. 25, 2016 at the age of 76, was a Vermont-dwelling poet, playwright and author who found home in the Green Mountain State where he penned six books of poems, in addition to books for children and young adults. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for playwriting. He is best known for his collection of poems, "Judevine," which he began writing in 1970 and continued to develop over the years as poems and as a play. Even now, in the production that has been lovingly assembled at Oldcastle Theatre Company under the directorial hands of Oldcastle's producing artistic director, Eric Peterson, two scenes have been added that, Peterson said in an e-mail, no one has ever done as part of the play. "David always allowed me to put together a our scripts so we have never done the same one twice," Peterson wrote.
"Judevine" is about, among other things, poverty, hope, acceptance, survival. It sketches the lives of the residents of Judevine in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom — "Thirty six square miles, a billion, billion souls, 600 human souls, two-thirds in the mountains, 200 in the village, squeezed between sharp rising hills, room only for the highway, railroad, river and what houses could be put amongst the trees," the ensemble fo six says at the beginning of the play; "... the ugliest town in northern Vermont, except maybe East Judevine," they say near the end. It's a town settled by waves of migration from regions of New England to the south, Quebec to the north; a virtual melting pot drawn initially to Judevine's now long-gone quarries.
Judevine is as beautiful in its simple joys as it is ugly in its pain. Budbill himself — played by Justin Pietropaolo with understated ease and wry humor and observation — is the guide; a poet from New Jersey who has come to this hardscrabble community and found work harvesting Christmas trees; an object of curiosity to Judevine's accepting residents. Unless you are black. That strain of bigotry is part of Judevine's past reflected in the story of Abraham Washington Davis, an educated liberated slave, brought north by a colonel in the Vermont Regiment, who, at age 15, couldn't read a word. He rose to become a schoolmaster, churchman, husband, father; the ony black man for 50 miles, who disappeared after the deaths of his wife and child. Judevine legend has it that he never left at all and met a bitterly ironic fate.
This time around, Peterson has cast two African-American actors in "Judevine" — Susan Spain, whose Grace is a single mother raising three kids in a trailer, abandoned by her husband; angry, resentful, clinging to a kind of hope in a relationship with Tommy (Pietropaulo), a war veteran suffering from PTSD; and Kevin Craig West, who counts among his characters the lusty life-grabbing Antoine. It lends an edge.
This is a finely tuned, often poignant gallery of portraits of a town, its people, a way of life that balances on the edge of the grid. Among the more affectionately recalled relationships is the connection between Edgar Whitcomb (Richard Howe), the town postal clerk as he follows his uneventful daily routine, and Laura Cate, the town clerk (an affecting Christine Decker), and, later in the play, Raymond and Ann (Howe and Decker again), a 70-something "hippie" couple who take pleasure in each other and their modest agrarian lifestyle on the edge of town; a lifestyle that comes undone, shatters, in a violent, uncomprehending way.
Oldcastle first mounted "Judevine" in 1988 at its founding home at Southern Vermont College in a production fired by a chemistry among its six-member cast — of which Howe was one — and between them and Peterson and Budbill that hasn't been replicated in subsequent Oldcastle treatments. It's been 15 years since Oldcastle last produced "Judevine." It's been worth the wait for a production that comes pretty darn close to the original. "Disheveled, wretched Judevine" is beautiful in the night," Budbill writes.