How does programming define a theater?

Photo by Hubert Schreibl

Photo by Hubert Schreibl

Jim Lowe
THE LOWE DOWN

Vermont’s largest and smallest summer theater companies are the first to announce their 2017 summer seasons, and they say a lot about them as well as theater in the state.

Weston Playhouse Theatre Company is not only the state’s oldest professional theater, beginning its 81st season, it’s the largest. Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater, at 40 hardly a newcomer, is comparatively tiny but has its own role as a Vermont cheerleader.

Telling are the opening productions. Weston is opening with “Once,” the new Tony Award-winning hit based on the film of the same name, June 27 – July 15. Weston is Vermont’s closest connection to what’s happening in New York and Broadway — now.

Conversely, Lost Nation will present David Budbill’s “Judevine,” the already classic and hardscrabble drama of post-Vietnam War rural Vermont. (I’m not sure whether it will be the 1986 two-act version or the 1990 three-act). Budbill, one of Vermont’s finest poets, died earlier this year, so this is a fitting tribute. It’s also an authentic, hard-hitting picture of poverty in Vermont. Lost Nation begins the summer early, April 20 – May 7.

Both are presenting classic musicals. After its success with “Hairspray” last year, Lost Nation is going “Into the Woods” with Stephen Sondheim’s skewered fairy tale musical. It’s always fascinating to see how a traditional musical can be staged in City Hall Art Center’s flexible but sometimes challenging space. That runs June 1 – 18.

Weston’s classic proscenium stage is the perfect home for the 1957 ever-popular Broadway hit “The Music Man,” by Meredith Willson. It will be great to watch Vermont’s top professional theater, particularly in the intimate Weston Playhouse, in this community theater favorite, Aug. 3 – 19.

Weston seems to have cornered for the state for great classic theater. First it will present Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” likely the great comedy writer’s best, July 20 – 29. But Weston will afford Vermont audiences the opportunity to see one of the true masterpieces of the theater, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Aug. 24 – 30. And Weston’s consistently high production level indicates a truly memorable experience.

A new approach to a classic novel will be Mark Brown’s comedy version of the Jules Verne novel “Around the World.” Five actors will play 30-plus characters in this zany comedy at Lost Nation July 6 – 23.

Lost Nation is offering a world premiere this season. Jon Glascoe’s “Will,” being produced in conjunction with Vermont Shakespeare Company, is a reimagining of William Shakespeare’s experiences during the tumultuous times before he wrote “Hamlet.” That runs Oct. 5 – 22, just right for Vermont’s Indian summer.

Not to be outdone, Weston is developing new theater, a specialty, actually. “Tenderly,” a musical portrait of singer Rosemary Clooney, has already been premiered, but Weston’s singer-actress Susan Haefner and director Tim Fort will be developing it in hopes of a New York run. That will be at the Weston Rod & Gun Club, July 13 – Aug. 5, part of the theater’s OtherStages series.

Both are offering one-person shows this year. Janis Stevens will pay tribute to the great actress Katharine Hepburn in Rick Foster’s “Kate: An Unexamined Life,” Sept. 7 – 17 at Lost Nation Theater. Weston will enjoy the comic trials and tribulations of an actor wannabe stuck as a sales clerk for Barbra Streisand in Jonathan Tolins’ off-Broadway hit, “Buyer & Cellar,” Aug. 10 – Sept. 3 at the Rod & Gun Club.

And there truly is something for everyone. Weston’s Young Company (young pros) is presenting “Really Rosie,” based on the writing of Maurice Sendak, for families June 22 – July 9 at the Rod & Gun Club. Lost Nation is offering productions by its Young Company (high school age and younger), “for and by kids.”

Our theaters continue to offer us a wide variety of experiences, from light comedy to dark tragedy, particularly important in these troubled times — a voice for sanity in the bleak wilderness of today.

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