Listening to the Westport County Playhouse’s actors and directors speak about theater makes you wish you spent more time going to plays. It makes you want to read great literature, think about symbolism and have more emotionally intelligent thoughts and conversations.
For years the Playhouse presented the typical fun, summer-stock productions. But since its 2005 state-of-the-art renovation, it’s embarked on a new chapter—one that is about challenging audiences to think.
“If there was no conversation afterward, it didn’t belong on our stage,” said Mark Lamos, artistic director. “We’re after something that makes people feel like they’re seeing consistently fine and more important theater.”
Nationally recognized, the nonprofit’s offerings range from star-studded exploratory dramas to unusual comedies. Through Sept. 15, the Playhouse presents the world premiere of “Harbor,” a play about a dysfunctional yet loving family, written by Chad Beguelin and directed by Lamos. From Oct. 9 through Nov. 3, it’s Lorraine Hansberry’s classic “A Raisin in the Sun,” which follows a black family in the 1950s chasing the American Dream.
But before the theater was “something to talk about,” as its new slogan says, it had a number of personality shifts. Originally, it was a barn, built in 1835 as a tannery manufacturing hatters’ leathers. After that it was a stream-powered cider mill on an orchard. But when married directors Lawrence Langner and Armina Marshall stumbled onto the property in the 1930s, it was simply an abandoned barn in the country.
Itching for a place to experiment and reinterpret classic plays—away from the New York City critics—the couple purchased the property and transformed it into a theater. Years later, it was a hotbed of talented actors and steamy summer-night performances.
Among those flocking to the theater for a change of pace and a summer in the country were Ruth Gordon, Bert Lahr, Ina Claire, Dennis King, Laurette Taylor, Eva Le Gallienne, Paul Robeson, Nyack’s Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Van Heflin, José Ferrer, Alan Alda, Cicely Tyson, Geraldine Page, Van Johnson, Charles Durning, Richard Thomas, Jane Powell, Sandy Dennis, Eileen Heckart, Robert Morse and the comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara.
Some performers didn’t need to travel far. Husband-and-wife thesps Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward were prominent Westport residents who trod the Playhouse boards – he perhaps most memorably as the stage manager in a production of Thorton Wilder’s poignant “Our Town.” Besides acting and directing at the Playhouse, Woodward, who still lives in Westport, served as its artistic director at the turn of this century, a time of renovation.
The Playhouse certainly needed it. The barn had gotten old, set-makers were building on top of broken floorboards and audiences had to deal with faulty air conditioners. But class acts all, the actors and audiences still thronged to the theater. Among them was Mark Nelson, who had been to the Playhouse in his youth and returned recently as the lead in Molière’s “Tartuffe,” a challenging work about deception, written and translated into rhymed couplets. For actors, it’s difficult to conquer the unusual speech and the work’s subtle emotional states. For audiences, the play demands that they give themselves over to the plot.
Nelson said it can be hard to find an audience with that kind of willingness. But at the Playhouse, it wasn’t a problem.
“It’s not an easy ride,” Nelson said. “And they ate it with a spoon.
“There’s a very big turn in the play when we finally catch Tartuffe with his pants literally down,” he continued. “And the laugh that came out of the audience—the 500 people there—every single time, shook the rafters and made it all feel worth it to me.”
In a digitally driven, instant-results world, Lamos said, it can be difficult to ask an audience to sit down and follow a plot that might not come together until the very end.
“Everyone is looking for that sound bite,” he said. “But I don’t think the theater will ever go out of style. People will still want to have those experiences.”
For more, visit westportplayhouse.org.