A seismic shift for Weston Playhouse?

Provided photo

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

It’s hard to remember when Weston Playhouse wasn’t the foremost professional theater in Vermont. It began its spectacular growth 30 years ago, when three young professionals took its helm.

Now they are leaving — but they are leaving the most artistically, professionally and popularly successful theater in the state.

Malcolm Ewen, Tim Fort and Steve Stettler were college theater students when they first started spending summers at Weston Playhouse, where they worked under the direction of Walter Boughton. In 1988, the three took over the reins, turning Weston Playhouse Theatre Company into a respected Equity professional theater — soon drawing some of the best actors, directors and production people from throughout the United States.

My first involvement with Weston didn’t come until 2001, as I was writing for the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Weston was well outside my territory. However, the announcement of a statewide tour of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” gave me the opportunity to write about this great theater.

I ended up talking to Steve, and we set up an interview and photo session. But Steve wasn’t going to miss an opportunity, and he convinced me to attend and review Weston’s production of the new musical “Floyd Collins.” It was pretty spectacular, and I have been a regular ever since — perhaps that’s why Steve was Weston’s year-round administrator.

Malcolm was directing “Of Mice and Men” and invited me to a rehearsal, where I observed, took photos and interviewed him. We became friends, and my visits to his rehearsals for photographing and interviewing became a nearly annual tradition. Then as now, Malcolm is able to bring out the deep humanity in characters that many other directors treat as superficial. Last week, I was able to see just that in a rehearsal for “The Music Man,” which opens Aug. 3.

When Malcolm isn’t at Weston, he’s usually stage managing at Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre, among a number of prominent national companies. Tim, in addition to Weston, where he has spent 46 consecutive summers, teaches directing, design, theater administration and musical theater at the Dan School of Music and Drama at Queen’s University in Ontario.

Of course, Steve gets to stay home — except when he hosts Weston’s tours of London theater. Here he tirelessly runs programs like the Artist Retreat, New Music Award and New Works Program, as well as preparing upcoming seasons. Most Herculean of all, he does the fundraising — with managing director Lesley Koenig — for the season and the new $13 million theater at Walker Farm.

And Steve is no slouch as a director either, responsible for 2010’s stellar “Death of a Salesman,” with Christopher Lloyd. He’s currently directing Jonathan Tolins’ “Buyer & Cellar,” which opens Aug. 10 at the Weston Rod & Gun Club.

Tim I got to know last, perhaps because he is the most reserved of the three, yet the productions I have seen of his were anything but. Particularly memorable was a spectacular production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” in 2006.

He made last season’s fluff ball “Mamma Mia!” so personal that even I loved it. And Tim beautifully directed Susan Haefner and David Bonanno in the Rosemary Clooney tribute “Tenderly,” running through Aug. 6 at the Rod & Gun Club.

Malcolm, Tim and Steve aren’t leaving until the end of the 2018 summer season, so we’ll be seeing more of them. They will be leaving the legacy of not only Vermont’s foremost summer professional theater, but the beginning of a nationally important year-round company with the opening of the new Weston Playhouse at Walker Farm on Sept. 23, an important addition to the iconic Weston Playhouse.

I have no doubt that Weston Playhouse Theatre Company will choose an excellent artistic director to take over the reins, but it won’t be the same — at least for me.

Jim Lowe is theater critic and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandheral.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.