When in Williamstown

Special Features   When in Williamstown A summer ritual, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is in full swing in Massachusetts.

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"I'm fond of saying that you don't choose a season," says Nicholas Martin, artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. "It kind of chooses you."

He continues, "You get in touch with directors and actors you know well, or they get in touch with you, and they talk about things that interest them. There are plays I've always wanted to see mounted, and people I believe in. You look for older plays that are classics in one way or another, and for new writers. Most people think it's very schematic. But I've never had that kind of program-matic feel."

Williamstown has a decades-long reputation as a warm-weather stage that attracts well-known actors, writers and directors as well as talented newcomers. Martin has created that kind of season, with playwrights like Sam Shepard, A.R. Gurney and Simon Gray, actors like Jefferson Mays and Dana Ivey, and directors like John Tillinger, Maria Aitken (a Tony nominee in 2008 for The 39 Steps), actor Dylan Baker — and Martin himself.

From July 29 to August 9, the festival's Main Stage will be home to The Torch-Bearers, a 1920s farce by George Kelly. The comedy, about community-theatre actors who put on a play, is directed by Baker and stars Ivey and Becky Ann Baker (Dylan Baker's wife). When the comedy was presented Off-Broadway by the Drama Dept. in 2000, with Baker directing and Seldes starring, Ben Brantley of The New York Times said it was full of "sustained gale-force laughter." "I promised Dylan Baker several years ago that I would do it," says Martin, whose Broadway directing credits include Butley with Nathan Lane and Hedda Gabler with Kate Burton. "It's an American gem, sort of forgotten, and Dylan's adaptation is superb. There was a lot of talk of moving it" back in 2000, "but it never happened. Maybe now it will move."

First up at the festival, July 1-12, was classic Gurney — Children, a co-production with the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut directed by Tillinger. "It's one of his best plays, one I've always wanted to do," Martin says. "It's based on a story by John Cheever, about the moribund condition of a certain class of white-collar Americans — three children who try to hang on to the past, while their mother is happy to move into the future." The cast included Mary Bacon, Katie Finneran and Judith Light.

Next, July 15–26, is True West, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Shepard's tale of two brothers. It stars Nate Corddry of Showtime's "United States of Tara" and Paul Sparks (of Broadway's recent Hedda Gabler). "I don't know that a Shepard play has been done at Williamstown, and I thought it was time," Martin says.

The Main Stage season concludes Aug. 12–23 with Simon Gray's Quartermaine's Terms, with Aitken directing. It's about academic life in a second-rate English school, and it stars Mays (a Tony winner as Best Actor for I Am My Own Wife), Mary Beth Hurt and Simon Jones. "This is arguably Gray's finest, deepest, most generous play," Martin says, "with a wonderful part for Jefferson Mays" as the title teacher.

The festival's smaller Nikos Stage features three world premieres: Knickerbocker, by Jonathan Marc Sherman, directed by Martin; What Is the Cause of Thunder? by Noah Haidle, whose Saturn Returns was directed by Martin last fall at Lincoln Center; and Caroline in Jersey by Melinda Lopez.

"These are writers I've directed and whom I believe in," Martin says. "Jonathan's play is about having a baby — and he has recently become a father. It's a universal subject."

Nicholas Martin (right with Andrea Martin) and the cast of <i>The Torch-Bearers</i>
Nicholas Martin (right with Andrea Martin) and the cast of The Torch-Bearers Photo by Sam Hough
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