STOCKBRIDGE — Kathleen Clark's largely forgettable comedy, "What We May Be," which is having its world premiere at Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage, is set on the stage and in the wings and green room of a community theater — Hill Little Theatre — in Hill, a picture postcard tree-lined village in a rural portion of northwestern New Jersey.
It is the theater's 50th anniversary gala, for which, at audience request, they are reviving "What We May Be," a night of four one-act plays the theater did seven years earlier, each designed for the company's reigning doyenne, Lucinda Royal Scott (Penny Fuller), much to the chagrin of the theater's president, Glen (Carson Elrod), who is fit to be tied.
"Dark but brilliant. That's what I do," he says to Colleen (Carla Duren), the town librarian. "This is no way to celebrate 50 years."
"They (the theater's loyal audience) voted for this night of one acts because of her," Colleen replies. "You've never seen her. If you had, you'd understand. Whenever someone comes into the library it's always 'Where's Lucinda? What happened to Lucinda?'"
Lucinda, it so happens, is asleep on a couch and whether she'll be awake in time for opening curtain is questionable. She not only is starring in each of the plays, she has taken over direction of a production she has previously said needs no director. Within Hill Little Theatre, she is arbiter of taste, propriety, detail; quality control.
She is the very last to be told, however, that the owner of the building which has been home to Hill Little Theater for half a century has decided to evict the theater at the end of the year so hecan tear the building down and replace it with apartments. After this one spring night gala, there will be room on the theater schedule only for its fall production, which has yet to be determined. And then, final bows.
Joining Glen, Lucinda and Colleen are Hill Little Theatre veteran Joan (a sublime Dee Hoty); a cardiologist named Hal (Count Stovall) and an eager young woman named Summer (Samantha Hill), who represents the next generation of theatermakers.
Clark shows us this company of six not only backstage but also onstage in each of the four short plays, beginning with "Seeing is Believing," about aging, a new pair of glasses and gaining a whole new perspective — literally and figuratively — on life late in life. In the second play, "The Writing Conference," an adult son, Henry (Eldrod's Glen) accompanies his mother, Mary (Fuller's Lucinda) to a writers' conference in Alaska where she's been asked to deliver the keynote address. On the night before, she is struggling over what to say. Needless to say, she does find her voice and its message winds up having deep resonance for Henry.
"Let's Live a Little" finds an elderly couple interviewing caregiver prospects to take some weight off the shoulders of their self-sacrificing adult daughter. "You can't hear, he can't see and now neither one of you can walk. You've hit the jackpot," a frustrated Daisy (played by Colleen) tells her parents.
"Emma's Joney," the fourth and by far the most, and only, emotionally catching of the four, is a beautifully acted, delicately directed piece set in a writing class at a community college. The teacher, Val Williams (Hoty who caps a consistently stylish and persuasive evening with a richly nuanced performance) is ready to cancel the class when only one student — an eager young woman named Nicole (very nicely played by Hill) who is looking to make a big score as a writer — shows up. But just as Val is ready to send Nicole home, an older woman named Jane Sharp (a deeply compelling Fuller). who has moved to the area from Tennessee, enters the room. She's not a writer, she says, but she has brought with her a kind of memoir about her mother. Nicole urges Val to let her read from the memoir, if only one page
"I don't think I can do this anymore. I don't think I can help you," a clearly worn, discouraged, disillusioned Val tells Nicole, before pausing, taking a breath and agreeing to hear Jane read. It's a transformative moment, both within this play-within-a-play and on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage as well.
Clark is a great believer in the ability of the human spirit to survive; to find revitalization; new and/or renewed life in the most unlikely places at the most unlikely of moments.
Hope, optimism and faith in the human spirit notwithstanding, "What We May Be" barely holds together. The framing device seems more a pretext to find a home for four one-act plays. Nor does Clark take advantage of the opportunities she provides herself. There is little insight and what humor there is is uninspired and mostly flat. And the performances overall, especially given the credits and skills of Edelman's cast, are oddly tentative, cautious, hesitant, as if we were watching a final dress rehearsal. Renewal, if there is to be any, is left for a later time.