STOCKBRIDGE — Should you need a reminder of just how much has been missing in your theatergoing experience because of COVID-19, you might want to hop over to Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus where something rarely seen these days is unfolding in the contained, resonant outdoor courtyard of BTG’s Unicorn Theatre. It’s called live theater.
We’ve not had the opportunity since the summer when Barrington Stage Company mounted two shows in an outdoor tent in a parking lot in Pittsfield, and Berkshire Theatre Group did the same with its production of “Godspell” in a parking area behind its Colonial Theatre, also in Pittsfield.
Now, forced to cancel its annual indoor community production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Colonial due to COVID-19 health concerns, BTG has downsized, moved from city to country and, under Eric Hill’s shrewd, knowing direction, mounted a well-acted, generally winning production of “Holiday Memories,” comprising playwright Russell Vandenbroucke’s stage adaptations of two short stories by Truman Capote — “A Thanksgiving Visitor” and “A Christmas Memory.”
Using the natural structure, contours and features of the Unicorn barn and a natural arrangement of low platforms at ground level, Hill and his designers — Randall Parsons, set; Laurie Churba, costumes; Matthew E. Adelson, lighting; Nathan Leigh, sound; Amanda M. Warriner, props — have created an environment that is at once spacious and intimate. By design — to conform to COVID-19 safety mandates by the state and by Actors Equity Association — less is more in “Holiday Memories.” Hill’s actors are at safe distances from one another, and the audience, at all times. Capote and Vandenbroucke’s words combine with the individual and collective imagination of the audience to fill the spaces that are integral to the production’s design.
Perhaps more than any other director whose work I’ve come to know in the seeming centuries I’ve been doing this, Hill has an astonishing appreciation for nuance. To that extent, space in “Holiday Memories” is not only a practical factor, it is very much a nuanced presence.
Hill places all five members of the cast at great separation around the stage for the play’s pivotal Thanksgiving dinner scene. At once, there is the immediate sense of the enormity of this family gathering for which five roasted turkeys and all the fixings are barely enough. Our eyes, however, are forced to see only the principal players. But what separates the core characters — 7-year-old Buddy, Capote’s boyhood self (Tim Jones in a delightfully shaped performance), and his best and closest friend, Miss Sook Falk (Corinna May), a 60-something spinster cousin who, together with her two spinster sisters and their bachelor brother took Buddy in when he was abandoned by his self-absorbed parents — also brings them together.
“A Thanksgiving Visitor” is built around the unrelenting torment Buddy receives at the hands of a 12-year-old second-grade classmate, Odd Henderson (Daniel Garrity in one of several roles), one of nine children being raised by a mother, Molly (Isadora Wolfe, who also plays a variety of characters and serves as the production’s movement director), whose ne’er-do-well husband is doing time on a prison farm.
The place is rural Alabama. The time is 1932. If anyone truly has the milk of human kindness, and wisdom, flowing through their veins it is Miss Sook, whose compassionate heart and devotion to Buddy has more than enough room for empathy toward Odd. It is with all that in mind that, after a visit to Molly, Miss Sook insists that Buddy invite Odd to join them at Thanksgiving dinner where, it turns out, the fixins’ will include important life lessons not only for Odd, but especially Buddy.
“A Christmas Memory” focuses on Miss Sook — so gently, knowingly, wistfully played by May with just a hint of darkness — and Buddy as they go about the business of cutting down their own Christmas tree in a nearby forest, preparing the decorations for the house, and the 31 fruitcakes Sook will bake — complete with home brew from the illicit distillery of a local merchant — and merrily distribute to friends, neighbors, and mostly strangers.
Space is not the ally to May and Jones here as it is in “A Thanksgiving Play.” “A Christmas Memory” is about at-times-faintly-unsettling intimacy; connection. And yet, at the same time, given the play’s ending, there is in this imposed unbridged distance, a sense of a need for connection by two very lonely people that is sought, but never met.
Jones very neatly captures the ingenuousness of youth; the at-once simplicity and complexity of the often bewildering choices he must make. May’s performance is simply masterly; so beautifully and honestly crafted — selective, sharp, subtle. At one moment, she lists for Buddy all the things in life she’s never done — among them, “never seen a movie, eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than 5 miles from home, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie, let a hungry dog go hungry.” It’s a statement of fact, of acceptance, of simple truth with only the faintest touch of rue.
These “holiday memories” are shaped by the play’s narrator — an older, adult Truman, played by David Adkins with wisdom, longing, a kind understanding; a safe return to a more innocent time in his life, even in the midst of the devastating Great Depression.
In terms of real time, Adkins’ avuncular Truman may be far removed from the days of these memories, but they resonate with such meaning that he and Buddy quite literally interact. Indeed, time and memory are such sly presences here, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Adkins wasn’t drawn by his own memories to his days as an apprentice actor at then Berkshire Theatre Festival’s old Unicorn Theatre, inside this very barn, as he stands here looking at the childhood-evoking setting before him at the very opening of “Holiday Memories.”
In so many ways, this is such a richly evocative production. In the theatricality of its performance style, in its thematic resonances and relationships, its gifts of words and language, Hill’s production carries faint echoes of “Our Town,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “All the Way Home,” Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” At the same time, “Holiday Memories” speaks with its own clear voice; a voice warm enough to help take the blanket-enveloping chill off a December evening or add yet another layer of warmth to a December afternoon sun.