Middle age as an affliction in Barrington Stage’s ‘This’
PITTSFIELD — In a light-filled rehearsal studio, director Louisa Proske confers quietly with two actors. They are working their way through the linguistic twists and turns of Melissa James Gibson’s “This,” a tartly funny drama about a group of friends navigating the onset of middle age.
Julia Coffey and Mark Dold are seated as their director offers notes about trusting the playwright’s language and letting it carry them through the play. They’ve been working on an intense scene between the two characters, who are old friends. “I feel energized by that,” Coffey says. “I’m totally drained,” Dold counters quietly. Their physical responses may differ, but they look right in synch on stage.
The new rehearsal studio, with its exposed brick and green views of the nearby Berkshire hills, sits above a space that was a showroom for office furniture before Barrington Stage Company renovated it this year into its new production center and administrative offices. “This” begins performances at the company’s Mark St. Germain Stage on Thursday.
Gibson’s play first bowed off-Broadway to some effusive praise in 2009. Since then she’s added to her resume the high-profile job as one of two showrunners for the Netflix series “House of Cards” alongside plaudits from the theater world, like her Obie Award for writing the play “[sic].”
“This” looks at a group of college friends entering their 40s. Jane (Coffey) is a semi-successful poet haunted by a personal loss. Marrell (Erica Dorfler) and Tom (Eddie Boroevich) are new parents starting to wither under the pressure of their child’s sleep disorder, which causes the baby to doze in short increments of about 15 minutes. Alan (Dold) is a single man who seems to be questioning his place in this group as the lives of his peers change dramatically. Also in the mix is Jean-Pierre (Paris Remillard), a dashing French doctor who Marrell and Tom would like to fix up with Jane.
“Somehow these people are all trying to ask themselves: How do I get out of who I’ve become? How do I experience real freedom?” Proske says, seated with Coffey and Dold in the building’s airy lobby. Proske speaks with just the hint of an accent that tips off her upbringing in Berlin. “And that has to do with doing the unexpected,” she continues, “with contradicting a bit of who you’ve become and how the others around you see you.”
Proske is coming off recent successes with Heartbeat Opera, the company she cofounded in New York City that has attracted favorable attention for its radical reinventions of classic material, arranged for chamber ensembles.
It’s her third time directing at Barrington Stage, and though the thematic connection is accidental it’s tempting to see “This” as the third in a trio of smartly observed, semi-dark comedies she’s helmed here that all have something to say about generational angst. Lucy Teitler’s “Engagements,” whose world premiere Proske directed at Barrington Stage in 2015, deals with the mixed feelings of folks in their mid-to-late 20s who feel left behind as they watch their friends get married. Last summer, Jiehae Park’s “Peerless” offered a scathing look at the pressures on teens applying for college.
Those plays were grounded in contemporary realities but had some highly stylized elements. The pure straightforwardness of “This” is a bit of a stretch for Proske. “I rarely do living room pieces,” she says, “with all the trappings of washing dishes and keys and doorbells and all that. So this is new for me: How do you do a degree of naturalism? But then there is this incredible musicality in the language that I really relate to.”
The playwright’s style in this piece is signaled by the apparent simplicity, or even throwaway nature, of the play’s title. The script is very carefully wrought to realistically simulate the speech patterns among a group of friends — within the intimacy of one-on-one conversations as well as when thoughts are Ping-Ponging among five people. The playwright uses lots of creative punctuation and capitalization, with unusual line breaks. It can be tricky to suss out the script’s rhythms and bring the words to life as something that sounds natural and not mannered.
“I’m so dazzled by the complexity of her writing when it seems so simple,” Dold says. Proske also notes the several long speeches in the play. “Each of the characters has this intense use of language that we refer to as arias, where suddenly there’s this intense need to talk a lot,” she says.
Coffey and Dold are each about the age of the characters they play. They say their own life experiences are essential to understanding Jane and Alan.
“I don’t think I could have played this part a couple of years ago,” Coffey says. “I think there’s an element of a paralysis that sometimes happens at different points in your life where something happens and all of a sudden you don’t know how to deal with it or you find yourself not performing at your best. That is not something we celebrate in humanity — when we don’t meet our expectations. I think it’s brave to put it on the stage.”
Dold has a similar view. The power of acting notwithstanding, life has a way of offering different people similar lessons at particular moments in time — for better or worse.
“You couldn’t be a younger actor with these characters,” he says. “Maybe you could, but you’d have to be faking the jadedness and the disappointment and the loss and the yearning — the stuff that starts to happen with middle age when you start to look back and forward at the same time.”
Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At Mark St. Germain Stage, Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, Aug. 3-27. Tickets $15-$48, 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org