Taking Thoreau back into the woods
STOCKBRIDGE — David Adkins is getting dressed.
The actor had stripped off his white undershirt a few minutes earlier and was stalking the stage in only blue jeans and socks, reciting lines almost under his breath while making himself at home on the spare rehearsal set. But now comes the shirt again, followed by suspenders. He’s working on a sequence in which he’ll get dressed onstage, in front of an audience that will have seen him enter the scene clad only in his birthday suit.
“The lights come up on a full moon,” director Eric Hill says euphemistically.
Adkins is playing Henry David Thoreau, a man who, the idea here is, felt pretty comfortable standing around naked in the woods. But as the author of “Thoreau or, Return to Walden,” a world premiere one-hander that began preview performances at Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre on Thursday, Adkins the actor is following the path laid by Adkins the playwright.
“It’s symbolic, but of course the audience doesn’t know or care about that,” says Adkins of his costume-less entrance, adding that the title character gets dressed as he becomes gradually more “naked,” as it were, in his openness with the audience.
Adkins created the show entirely from Thoreau’s words. The conceit is that an older Thoreau revisits the cabin in the woods near Walden Pond where he famously spent two years. He’s just heard that John Brown, the abolitionist who led an armed assault on a federal armory in West Virginia in 1859, would be hanged. Brown’s death sentence sparks a crisis of conscience.
Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience would later prove an inspiration to Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but he also supported Brown’s bloody rebellion in a speech he gave in his hometown of Concord, Mass. Adkins says he resolved to write the play when a line in that speech surprised him. “I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable,” Thoreau wrote.
“Can an individual make a difference in the world? And is the answer picking up a gun,” Adkins asks on behalf of his protagonist, “or is it picking up the pen?”
Most of the play’s text comes from four of Thoreau’s works — the addresses “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and “Slavery In Massachusetts,” the essay “Civil Disobedience,” and “Walden,” his much-loved (and much-quoted) account of going into the woods alone “to live deliberately.”
Adkins, 53, is a longtime fixture at Berkshire Theatre Group, where he’s acted in shows running the emotional and intellectual gamut from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” to “Same Time Next Year,” Bernard Slade’s light comedy and perennial choice for summer theaters. He worked with Hill, the company’s resident director (and husband of artistic director/CEO Kate Maguire), most recently on “POE” last fall, a piece Hill wrote about the father of American horror and detective fiction.
The easy rapport between director and actor is evident one recent afternoon as they work in BTG’s main theater, before a planned move up the hill to the Unicorn a few days later. Adkins spends several minutes onstage alone, working out various moments from the play quietly as his director chats with a visitor before planting himself in the front row.
As Adkins tries out the feel of some props, Hill briefly goes in search of his black Lab, Gaia, another rehearsal observer. It’s all part of the process, as Adkins works to step out of the mindset of the playwright and into that of the actor. He balances two rocks onstage. Nearby, an ax leans against a wooden stool.
A thinker, conservationist, and transcendentalist who prided himself on living simply, Thoreau coined aphorisms — like “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams” — that would later be co-opted by personal-investment firms and real estate agents. But Adkins and Hill say they aim to peel away the layers of historical interpretation and baggage that could separate their subject from the show’s audience.
“I was not interested in reading biographies for other people to tell me who they think Thoreau was. I wanted his words to inform me as to what I think he is,” Adkins says. “I’m not trying to go up there and have an accent and pretend I’m some hermit, as he’s so often described. That’s not what this is.”
Another challenge is to craft a story of interest to Thoreau novices as well as the enthusiasts who are bound to turn up.
“There’ll be the experts who are counting the number of rings on the logs, and there will be the people who come with no knowledge of Thoreau other than a name in the history of American literature and philosophy,” Hill says.
A Manhattan resident, Adkins says life in the cabin he rents during summer in nearby Tyringham has prepared him for at least one scene in the play, when Thoreau chops wood with a theatrical flourish.
“Luckily,” Adkins says, “I have some technique with an ax.”
Thoreau or, Return to Walden
Play by David Adkins
Directed by Eric Hill
Presented by Berkshire
At: Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, through July 11
Tickets: $42-$50, 413-997-4444, www.berkshiretheatregroup.org