by Gail M. Burns, February 2007
Visiting Mr. Green has come home to the Berkshires.Jeff Baron’s two-man play received its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in the summer of 1996 with Eli Wallach in the title role. Since then it has literally been around the world, having been translated in 23 languages. Now Town Players has brought the show home to Pittsfield in a simple and successful community theatre production, starring Peter Podol as the 86-year-old Mr. Green and Jonathan Slocum as Ross Gardiner, the Yuppie who is sentenced to visit Mr. Green weekly after nearly hitting him with his car.
John Trainor and Tom Reardon shared directing duties on this production, which is mounted at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts. I have been vocal in my complaints that Town Players’ productions have either been rattling around in the cavernous Boland Theatre at BCC or crammed in to the corner of the Lichtenstein, but this show, like Trainor’s fine production of Brian Friel’s three-person drama Molly Sweeney last year, fits neatly into the intimate confines of the Lichtenstein. And I do enjoy the chance to attend plays, readings, receptions, etc. in a gallery setting where you are literally surrounded by art in its myriad forms.
Visiting Mr. Green is a play about the struggle of these two men to live in ways that are true to who they are and what they believe that still accommodate a world that may not agree with them. Recently widowed, Mr. Green clings too tightly to the past and his devoutly held Jewish faith. Ross is also trapped by old-fashioned stereotypes as he struggles to come to terms with who he is. For both men, who they are and what they believe has caused serious rifts with their families. In the end both make compromises that allow them to be themselves while accepting the love of people they may not agree with.
The story is told as Ross comes to visit Mr. Green every Thursday, with a bag of Kosher food from Fine and Schapiro in hand. At first Ross doesn’t want to keep his court appointed visits anymore than Mr. Green want him to, but as time passes and the two men learn more about each other’s lives, they come to play important roles in each other’s opening to new ideas and values.
This is not a professional production, and while Podol and Slocum are very good, you should not attend this show expecting the level of performance mounted by the BTF or other professional theatres in the area. There is a homespun feel to this production, which is endearing and engaging. Both actors bring everything they have to playing these characters. The depth of Podol’s commitment and engagement was evident as he struggled to keep back tears at the curtain call. He still was visiting Mr. Green, living Mr. Green, and letting go of Mr. Green as the opening night performance came to its conclusion. Community theatre should always be that way – as rewarding and satisfying to the performers as to the audience.
Both Podol and Slocum play their roles fairly stereotypically, which is one way for amateur actors to identify and grasp their roles. While there were many scenes that they were able to play poignantly and effectively, some of the larger dramatic moments fell flat, most notably Ross’s big confession at the first act curtain. Baron intended it to be a gasper, leaving the audience excited to see how the characters’ relationship would change in Act II, but instead it was sort of a “So?”
No one is credited with the set design, although six names, including the legendary Bob Boland and Slocum, are listed as “set assistants” which I assume means they physically constructed it. I found it a plausible rendition of an old New York City walk-up apartment. My only objection was the decision to place Mr. Green’s off-stage bedroom in a tiny closet built into the corner stage left, and his off-stage bathroom in the expanse of “back stage” space provided by the entry to the Lichtenstein. Every time Podol went into the “bedroom” I was keenly aware that he was standing in a tiny little closet and it was almost comical. I could have easily accepted such a small space as the john – I have in fact met washroom facilities of about that size. And surely the bathroom and the kitchen plumbing would all be on one wall.
John Fletcher has done a nice job with the lighting and sound design for this show. The Lichtenstein is not a theatre, and so these aspects of the production have had to been jerry-rigged and operated discretely from behind a little screen.
Slocum’s young daughter Cheyanne acted as the properties mistress for this production, a role she took very seriously and performed very professionally, earning her a little applause when she came out to tidy up the set after the final curtain. What a nice way for a father and daughter to share a theatre experience that otherwise might have meant many evenings apart.
The Town Players next offering at the Lichtenstein will be Harold Pinter’s two-man play The Dumbwaiter which I expect will also fit nicely into that small space, followed by a big 85th anniversary blow-out production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Boland, directed by Boland. I have very happy memories of the last Town Player’s Mikado I saw there, with Tommy Towne as memorable Pooh-Bah in astonishing platform flip-flops that I covet to this day. Eight-five years is a truly remarkable run in the fly-by-night world of the theatre, and I hope that this new Mikado proves to be a suitably special celebration for a fine community theatre troupe.
Visiting Mr. Green presented by the Town Players of Pittsfield will be performed February 23 & 24 and March 2 & 3 at 8 p.m. and February 25 at 2 p.m. at the Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, 28 Renne Street, Pittsfield. Tickets are $8. The show runs about an hour and forty minutes with one intermission. While there is no violence or rough language, the subject matter is mature and I wouldn't bring children under 13. Call 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007