Suddenly, out of the darkness, came one of the most thrilling sounds an audience can make: a collective gasp. This is how you know that the crowd is rapt, that the storytelling has taken hold. And so it had the other night during a performance of “Blues for an Alabama Sky” at Barrington Stage Company, where a different plot twist elicited another welcome noise: a mid-scene eruption of delighted applause. Humans can be a lot of fun to see a show with.
That’s something to keep in mind at this crisis moment in the theater, whose prepandemic audiences have yet to return in their former numbers, and whose programming has shrunk accordingly. But that doesn’t mean the work itself has withered. Over a couple of days in Western Massachusetts last week, I saw two plays, one play reading and one cabaret, and if you looked at the quality of what was there — rather than the quantity of what was not — you’d hardly know that anything was amiss. And Barrington Stage, anyway, has not scaled back this year.
“Blues for an Alabama Sky,” directed by Candis C. Jones on the Boyd-Quinson Stage in Pittsfield, Mass., is a tone-perfect production of Pearl Cleage’s 1995 play, set in the summer of 1930, that has plenty of resonance in the summer of 2023. It also shimmers with the charisma of a terrific cast playing funny, likable, fully dimensional friends.
Angel (Tsilala Brock),a role originated by Phylicia Rashad, is a Harlem nightclub singer with a voice to fit her name. Guy (Brandon Alvión) is a chicly fabulous costume designer with exquisite taste. In the middle of the Great Depression, they are both freshly out of work — since the night Angel told off her gangster ex from the stage, and Guy defended her. Now they’re roommates, sharing his apartment.
Angel hopes that Leland (DeLeon Dallas), a conventionally religious Southern stranger, will swoop in and save her, even though they are a catastrophic mismatch. Guy plans to be rescued by Josephine Baker, whose portrait hangs from his wall like a deity. He sends his designs to her in Paris, fantasizing that she will whisk him there.
Across the hall, Angel and Guy’s earnest, impassioned social worker friend, Delia (Jasminn Johnson), is helping to open a family planning clinic — and maybe falling for their nightlife-loving doctor friend, Sam (Ryan George), who delivers babies all over the neighborhood.
“I’m not trying to make a revolution,” Delia says, and if her drably sensible suits are any indication, she means it. “I’m just trying to give women in Harlem the chance to plan their families.”
But self-determination — control over one’s own body in particular — has always been revolutionary, and freedom from straitjacketing social mores is what Angel and Guy have been chasing ever since they left Savannah for Harlem. As a Black woman and a gay Black man, they’ve each encountered violence aimed at them for that.
“Blues for an Alabama Sky” is about the tenacity of hope, the limits of forgiveness and the romance of defiance. It’s a glittering spoken blues, layered with yearning.
About 20 miles north of Pittsfield, Williamstown Theater Festival is producing a drastically cropped season, none of whose offerings are open to review — because, a publicist said, they “are all in active development.” Fair enough. But the festival — which landed in trouble in 2021 when workers accused it of exploiting them, and in response produced a streamlined 2022 season — hasn’t lost its stardust, even without its customary fully staged productions.
In the ’62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, the festival’s longtime home, the WTF Cabaret set (by Se Hyun Oh) is stark, the lighting (by Emily Schmit) glamorous. Both audience and performers are onstage, with the auditorium’s rows of empty seats forming the backdrop for the show. A sculptural array of illuminated bulbs hangs in the air, like a constellation of ghost lights. Simplicity, this summer, is the festival’s friend.
So, last weekend, was the actor Jeff Hiller. Lately risen on the cultural radar thanks to HBO’s heart-stirring friendship dramedy “Somebody Somewhere,” he hosted the cabaret, trying out comic material for an August show at Joe’s Pub. Bill Irwin performed in master-clown mode, and Jacob Ming-Trent knocked his songs so far out of the park that he could not have been a better advertisement for seeing him down the road in Lenox, Mass., playing Bottom in Shakespeare & Company’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (Aug. 1-Sept. 10).
The cabaret hosts and guests change each weekend, but the band and the core performers (Eden Espinosa, Asmeret Ghebremichael and Jon-Michael Reese) are constants. Reese’s fresh, textured interpretation of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” given a soulful flourish by the music director, Joel Waggoner, ought to be a constant, too.
Nearby at the Clark, I saw a Williamstown Theater Festival reading of Cindy Lou Johnson’s “Plunder and Lightning,” directed by Portia Krieger. It would be unfair to evaluate the play, about a family of schemers teetering on the edge of ruin, but it was a genuine joy to watch Annie Golden rip into a substantial comic part, with the brilliant Johanna Day alongside her. Not a bad lineup for a Friday afternoon, or for a $15 ticket. And the legroom? Miles of it.
Back in Pittsfield, Barrington Stage Company was also engaged in new work: the world premiere of Mike Lew’s “tiny father” — a comedy set in a neonatal intensive care unit, where Daniel (Andy Lucien) has become the father of a daughter born 14 weeks premature, and is soon a solo parent. Caroline (Jennifer Ikeda), a nurse on the unit, is his guide through this alien landscape — and sometimes, Daniel thinks, his opponent there.
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, it’s a smart play about parenthood, and the ways race and gender play into expectations and outcomes in health care and elsewhere. (Daniel is Black, his baby’s mother is Asian, and Caroline is written to be played by an Asian or Latina actress.) But the script demands an exceptionally tricky balance of comedy and emotional complexity in the portrayal of Daniel, which this production has yet to find. Talking to the baby, Sophia, though, Lucien is lovely always.
Good news, then, from a theatrical landscape lately festooned with co-productions. Though this “tiny father” has ended its Barrington Stage run, it will get a chance to go deeper when it moves to Chautauqua Theater Company in Chautauqua, N.Y., next week. Butts in seats, please.
Blues for an Alabama Sky
Through Aug. 5 at the Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield, Mass.; barringtonstageco.org.
Aug. 4-17 in the Bratton Theater at the Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, N.Y.; chq.org.