What We May Be, a sweet-natured world premiere from Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG), feels like a throwback to the trifles that once populated summer-stock stages across the country. This is not a complaint.
Playwright Kathleen Clark crafts a charming love letter to the let’s-put-on-a-show ethos of community theater. BTG’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage stands in for the Hill Little Theatre, and although the space itself is a step above the kind of playhouse Clark depicts, it has a pleasant air of shabbiness that suits the assignment. Scenic designer Randall Parsons complements the surroundings with the familiar trappings of backstage life: gleaming ghost lights, visible flies, and dingy green rooms with ancient couches where thousands of thespians have caught a quick nap during rehearsal.
This stage has allowed the doctors, librarians, and accountants who make up a community theater troupe to transform themselves into the great men and women of the dramatic canon. The play takes its title from Hamlet—“Lord, we know what we are now, but not what we may become”—but Clark doesn’t deploy the reference in a pretentiously literary sense. Instead, it boils down to the essence of acting, whether professionally or as a diversion from everyday life: the possibility of slipping into a new skin for a few hours, to escape the quotidian and have some fun.
That has been the driving force behind the Hill Little, which is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary as the play begins. They commemorate the event with an evening of one-acts starring their de facto grande dame, Lucinda Scott Royal (Penny Fuller), a woman whose plans for success on greater stages were thwarted by the vagaries of life.
Lucinda has remained the theater’s constant since returning to her small hometown, and the troupe’s other members seem to orbit her with equal doses of respect and frustration. They include Glenn (Carson Elrod), a would-be auteur director; Joan (Dee Hoty), who longs for her own chance to be leading lady; Colleen (Carla Duren), the smart but kindhearted ingenue; Hal (Count Stovall), an aging matinee idol; and Summer (Samantha Hill), an all-business stage manager who proudly professes her hatred of musicals.
The play’s sole source of tension is predictable—the theater faces extinction, its landlord set on turning it into apartment buildings—but Clark doesn’t linger on the conflict. Nor does she spend much time developing the characters. We get smatterings of backstory here and there, but none of the six people move much beyond types. Yet it hardly matters, as Clark and director Gregg Edelman keep the action, which centers around the benefit performance, moving briskly, and the performers bring buckets of personality and a sense of genuine fellowship to their assignments.
With her career on the cusp of its seventh decade, Fuller could not be more appropriately cast as the distinguished diva. She brings her vast stage experience to the role, and she has no trouble projecting both Lucinda’s imperious airs and her gentle affection for the theater that has been her true home. Seen inside the world of the playlets, which take up most of the ninety-minute running time, she gives the sense of a performer attuned to her audience, who can hold the group rapt in the palm of her hand.
And while none of the vignettes are memorable on their own, Fuller finds moments in each that rival any great work of the stage. A long glance in the mirror as she tries on a flattering pair of glasses suggests a new lease on life as her character’s twilight years set in. A speech at a writing conference culled largely from authorial aphorisms allows for crisp oration. Fuller and Stovall share a tender moment when playing a married couple who must face the rapid ticking of life’s clock. In the final scene, Fuller fully invests herself as a widow who enrolls in a creative writing class and learns she has a knack for composition. It helps that Clark supplies a genuinely moving fragment for Fuller to read.
I would have liked to learn more about Lucinda and her life, but that’s not the play Clark wrote. And in a way, that’s the right choice. Lucinda and her ilk come to community theater to press life’s pause button, however briefly, and tap into their true selves. In projecting that sense, What We May Be succeeds. It shows its audience what these actors may become—which, in a way, is who they really are.