10 best shows on Berkshire stages in 2019

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The world was with us this summer on Berkshires stages this year; perhaps too much so. With the sobering, chilling, frightening reality of a Trump administration at war with American democracy, laughs were hard to find on regional stages this year.

Theater, of course, happens year round in the Berkshires and its environs in Connecticut and New York, but summer is the most intense period of theater activity. This summer was intense not only in the feverish pitch of activity, but also in terms of the themes that pounded across our stages in almost unrelieved pain and outrage. questioning as the world came thundering in. Our summer-producing theaters examined race relations in America — nowhere more potently than "Topdog/Underdog" at Shakespeare & Company; "America v 2.1: The Sad Demise & Eventual Extinction of the American Negro" at Barrington Stage Company; and, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, director Robert O'Hara's problematic and, at the same time, audacious, unsettling, calculatedly discomforting, in-your-face treatment of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun," which made us look at a 60-year-old classic of the American stage through the lens of today's Black Lives Matter.

Moral choices; what it means to be viewed as The Other; class and money; the climate; responsibility for the choices we make both on a grand scale and within our personal relationships also were among potent themes that hung in the theater ether this summer, extending into the fall with a haunting "American Son" at TheaterWorks Hartford; the reflective "Cry It Out," a play about what it means to be a working mother, at Hartford Stage; and Kenneth Lonergan's "Lobby Hero" at Capital Repertory Theatre — a witty, feeling, insightful play about choices and doing the right thing.

Preaching social issues onstage is one thing. What made these offerings meaningful is that these plays and the productions they received showed us the human face, the human toll and consequence of issues that too often seem to be discussed as an abstract.

And so, here is the list of what were, for me, the 10 best productions of calendar year 2019. Touring shows — "guest productions," as they are referred to by the Boston Theater Critics Association in their Elliot Norton Awards — are not included. So, if you are looking for the beyond-words, truly awesome national tour of "Hamilton" at Proctors in Schenectady, N.Y., it's not on my list. Besides, "Hamilton" is in a class entirely its own.


The Top 10

1 TOPDOG/UNDERDOG (Shakespeare & Company)

Life is a hustle for two African-American brothers living on the edge in Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, which received a potent, intense, razor-sharp production at Shakespeare & Company that took hold right from the get-go and simply wouldn't let go. Director Regge Life tightened the expansive Tina Packer Playhouse space and brought us up close and personal into the lives of these two men, named Booth and Lincoln, and made these black lives matter, especially as played, respectively, by Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Bryce Michael Wood. Simply stunning work all the way around. Powerful and memorable.

2 AMERICAN SON (TheaterWorks Hartford)

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Quiet, steady, filled with rage and pain but without polemics or speechifying, director Rob Ruggiero and a remarkable cast made the heart of this play ache. This was a lucid, patient production of Christopher Demos-Brown's carefully crafted, masterly play about an interracial couple's worst nightmare as parents. Brilliantly paced, carefully calibrated, rich in emotional detail and pathos, Ruggiero's production grabbed hold from its very first moments and held as it built steadily right up until, and through, its wrenching ending.

3 INTO THE WOODS (Barrington Stage Company)

With sly imagination, savvy understanding and insight, and bold sense of risk, director Joe Calarco and his sublimely talented cast took on this problematic Stephen Sondheim musical and made his way through its thickets with this richly inventive, hugely theatrical and rewarding production.

4 THE GOAT, OR, WHO IS SYLVIA? (Berkshire Theatre Group)

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With director Eric Hill at the helm and David Adkins and an incandescent Jennifer Van Dyke in the leads, Edward Albee's edgy, devilishly witty play about a marriage — indeed, a family — that comes undone in, to say the least, profoundly unanticipated ways. Stylish, savvy work.

5 IF I FORGET (Barrington Stage Company)

One of the unexpected accomplishments of the summer. This large ensemble cast neatly navigated the layers of Steven Levenson's, by turns, funny and poignant play about a Jewish family — gathered to celebrate the 75th birthday of the family patriarch — trying to come to terms, once and for all, with its history and legacy. At stake are questions of generation, tradition, what of that tradition is worth saving and able to survive in a changing world. Smoothly executed and very well played throughout.

6 ON THE EXHALE (Chester Theatre Company)

Gun violence is the starting point for this exquisitely acted play, by Tara Franklin, about a single mother's response to the shooting death of her young son at his school. Franklin gave a finely tuned performance; so carefully measured and sensitive to the nuances of Martin Zimmerman's thoughtful, probing, skillfully written play.


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Whatever the deficiencies of playwright Stacey Rose's text, her ambitious, audacious, piercing, go-for-broke examination of the state of race relations in America and the surrounding hypocrisy was given an equally penetrating go-for-broke world premiere that very nearly burst the seams of Barrington Stage Company's intimate St. Germain Stage.

8 WORKING: A MUSICAL (Berkshire Theatre Group)

The American worker sang, and spoke, with simple grace, eloquence and wit in this lovely, insightful treatment of a musical, based on Studs Terkel's landmark book, that is all-too-rarely produced.

9 THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH (Berkshire Theatre Group)

Credit director David Auburn with finding a way through Thornton Wilder's ambitious, often unwieldy, epic and finding the treasures that have made this play so enduring, if, also, rarely performed. In the hands of Auburn and an expert cast, less was ever so much more

10 BEFORE THE MEETING (Williamstown Theatre Festival) / SELLING KABUL (Williamstown Theatre Festival)

Two plays about survival — one unfolding in the ante room of church social hall that hosts a series of AA meetings; the other an apartment in Kabul where secreted lives are at risk — that, without melodrama, dealt with the effects of living life on a perilous edge. Both plays exquisitely written and delicately played out on WTF's Nikos Stage.

Waiting in the wings (in order of being seen): "A Doll's House, Part 2" (TheaterWorks Hartford); "Lillian" (Whitney Center for the Arts); "Time Flies" (Barrington Stage Company); "Brighton Beach Memoirs" (Oldcastle Theatre Company); "Curve of Departure" (Chester Theatre Company); "Judevine" (Oldcastle Theatre Company); "Lobby Hero" (Capital Repertory Theatre); "Cry It Out" (Hartford Stage)

OUTSTANDING NEW WORK FOR THE STAGE (text): "Selling Kabul" by Sylvia Khoury. Produced at Williamstown Theatre Festival.


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