At Williams College, a prize-winning drama tests the mettle of its student cast
WILLIAMSTOWN — It's late afternoon at the '62 Center's Adams Memorial Theatre in Williamstown. Actors stand and sit on mismatched chairs, alone in their thoughts. A young man picks off a tune on a rickety wooden organ, a woman curls up on the floor at the front of the stage, muttering incoherently.
While director Omar Sangare focuses intently on the unfolding scene, choreographer Pau Aran Gimeno guides a seemingly endless stream of actors back and forth across the stage.
Playwright Tracy Letts mined personal history to win a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for "August: Osage County," his saga of an estranged Oklahoma family coming to terms with its demons after tragedy reunites them. The mature material is meaty fodder for Williams College theater students, who are performing the drama on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings now through May 6 at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance.
Sangare reassembled the international creative team from his 2015 Williams production, "Princess Ivona" — Barcelona-born Gimeno who dances with Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch; Polish set designer Joanna Kus; Broadway lighting designer Coby Chasman-Beck; and Williams alumni Ilya Khodosh, dramaturg, and Stephen Simalchik, sound designer.
Among these far-flung professionals and Williams students are two local performers: Evelyn "Evi" Mahon, a junior from Williamstown, and Pittsfield freshman Caroline Fairweather. Both are cast in leading roles, as matriarch Violet Weston and her estranged daughter Barbara Weston-Fordham, respectively. Before Williams, they performed extensively in Shakespeare, musicals and plays of Berkshire professional theater youth programs; and both eschewed traditional conservatory training for the renowned liberal arts school.
"[Conservatories] didn't seem deep enough for me to grow as a person," Fairweather explained. "I've learned how to sing and act and dance and that's all well and good, but Williams backs that up with intellectual discussion and seminars. Working with professors like Omar and all these amazing faculty members, I'm definitely getting what I need."
"We've known each other for years," said Mahon, who has performed, directed student productions and designed costumes while at Williams. She adds the role of Weston to a growing resume of "strong, matronly, older female characters" in productions such as "Sweeney Todd" and Samuel Beckett's "Endgame."
Along with her twin passion of statistics, she relishes the process of dialogue and the evolution of Sangare's semester-long rehearsal process. "It challenges me to really push myself," she said, "and discover new things along the way."
Sangare is not afraid to cast newly arrived students such as Fairweather in leading roles. "I see students' talents and try to picture them within the story," he explained. "Each brings to the table their sensitivity, imagination, experiences, curiosity, and we build the story based on what we find in the room. They make this journey exciting."
He had no hesitation in offering Mahon the demanding, dramatic role of Weston. "She is absolutely amazing to work with both on stage and off," he said, citing her commitment, precision and dedication. He even offered her the opportunity to select the semester's play "so she could shine," but she deferred to his experience.
He looks, he said, for plays that are difficult and complex in terms of dynamics. In "August," he knew that, within this group of characters, "there would be something very important, very great for her to conquer."
Mahon has chosen not to view the Oscar-nominated performances of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in the play's film adaptation, which Sangare found missing some important elements. For example, he considers Native American housekeeper Johnna a central character who can see the struggle this family is facing from the outside with compassion. "She is a person of charisma," he said, "not passive but proactive and aware."
Sangare, who is also artistic director of a multi-national solo play festival in New York, has been teaching and directing at Williams for 10 years. He was the first actor of color in his native Poland, his training steeped in the contrasting psychological and expressive influences of neighboring Russia and Germany. While touring a solo piece internationally, a year he spent teaching in Santa Barbara, Calif. convinced him to pursue a career in an academic setting.
Without time and commercial constraints, "you can take risks, improvise, experiment and liberate your potentials and senses, and let yourself flourish," he explained.
He wants "August" audiences to experience "this magical moment in which you transport your mind, your soul, to a specific space and time."
Theater is a way of living, he says, an exercise in learning from reality and from the stage.
"We come not only to entertain ourselves, but also to talk about human nature, values and struggles, and exercise the most precious gift, our lives, which we can examine on stage, make some mistakes as characters, see consequences and learn so we do better."
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