The Stone Witch, by Shem Bitterman. Directed by Steve Zuckerman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"The loneliness that comes with greatness."
Judd Hirsch and Rupak Ginn; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Dark stories appeal to me; the human experience in its mysterious contradictions, the made-up realities within which talented people survive the world they live in. Shem Bitterman's play "The Stone Witch" is about such darkness. It is a modern tragedy about a life spent in bringing joy to millions destroying itself in dark and sombre tones leaving behind a legacy of lies. On stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's mainstage in Stockbridge, MA this world premiere, produced in conjunction with Darlene Kaplan Entertainment and Brierpatch Productions, is introducing the last gasp of an artist's long and fruitful life to audiences that need to gird their loins, or pull up their socks, or do whatever each one does to grapple with harsh realities and get through them. A classic question presents itself: Is it worth my time and my money to see this play? I'd say the answer is: Yes, well worth your time and money to see what this author has written as brought to perfect life by this director.
A talented cast of three tell the story about the final two weeks in the life of author and illustrator Simon Grindberg, played by Judd Hirsch. Grindberg is a modestly disguised Maurice Sendak whose own story is greatly paralleled by Grindberg's tale. Has the author taken Sendak as his model, though - it's not clear, but so many moments seem to be so close to the truth that I would venture a guess that he has done just that.
Grindberg lives alone in what could be the tender woods of Connecticut near other famous writers and artists; Sendak lived his final years in just such an environment in Danbury, Connecticut. Grindberg has not produced a new book in a dozen years; prior to his final book in 2011 Sendak had not published a new book since 1995. Grindberg's life has been noticeably solitary except for one long-ago marriage; Sendak lived a desperately private existence with his gay partner of fifty years whose death preceded his own by five years and almost no one knew about his private life. Sendak's will left everything to a museum with extraordinary strict regulations to be met which is a provision now being contested; Grindberg similarly leaves everything to a young man he has known for only two weeks with restrictions that limit the use of property. It looks to me like Sendak is the model for Grindberg.
Judd Hirsch is extraordinary in the sort of role you don't expect to find him playing. His Grindberg, the Great Man, is a man at the end of his wits, struggling for survival, reaching out for connections and not able to bring them to their clear conclusions. His relationship with his editor is strained to the point of snapping apart. The young author/artist she sends to work with him is living proof that there is still potential, still things to be achieved. Hirsch plays the most asexual human being since Tiny Tim, the singer, and Grindberg's lapsed sense of human interactions is forced back into existence, only to tremble on the brink of real relationship. Hirsch knows how to play potentials. He brings to life the madness of the lonely without lapsing for long into that madness. It is a haunting performance.
Kristin Griffith plays his editor at Harpers, Clair Forlorni, concerned for his well-being, desperate for a new work from her artist, capable of doing anything to drive the book out of the author at almost any cost. She is clearly based on Sendak's own Harpers editor, Ursula Nordstrom who not only worked closely with him but was his model and inspiration at times. In the play Clair inherits a painting by Grindberg, one in full view throughout the play, but one we only barely notice and never really see, though it is one she clearly cherishes. Griffith has a beautifully brusque manner in this role and it serves the part very well. Her elegance is tied to confidence rather than to the outer trappings she presents. She is smoothe, balanced, overly controlled and rarely emotional. She is a physical counterpoint to Grindberg. Griffith plays all of this with nuance and a petulance that keeps Clair just this side of smarmy.
The young man she sends to the author, and the man who almost comes between them is Peter Chandler played by Rupak Ginn. The actor and the role are well matched. He is handsome enough to be attractive to both Clair and Grindberg. He is a bit of a threat to both for in just two weeks time he becomes the be-all to the latter and the go-to for the former. Placed in a unique position and eager to profit from the experience, he moves well beyond his own expectations and emerges the psychological inheritor of more than he bargained for. Ginn is wonderful in the role. He is handsome, with a strong and romantic voice, he is graceful and unashamed and in the understated sexual object position in the play he is uniquely non-physical. This actor makes this character completely believable and that is to his credit.
On a wonderful set designed by Yael Pardess, complete with projections of both art and environment designed with Rasean Davonte Johnson, the company has been directed superbly by Steve Zuckerman. There are so many small touches that produce the doddering strong figure of Grindberg that can only have come from the collaboration of actor and director. Zuckerman's constant presentation of the perfect stage picture is a realization of the artist's need for balance and focus in his own work. He has created images with people and projections that are seared into this viewer's mind.
He has great help from the lighting designer, Shawn E. Boyle, the composer Roger Bellon of Bellchant Music, the costumes designed by Mimi Maxmen and the sound designer Christopher Cronin. Technically the show, a ninety-three minute one-act, is a brilliant frame for a superb play.
My only gripe, and it is truly a small one, is that as written and played I have no empathy, no sympathy, for any of these people. This is truly a "fly-on-the-wall" situation where nothing that happens to any of the characters makes me feel anything. I am fascinated, yes, but moved, no. When people are as intensely interesting, individually, as these three are it is hard not to be towed into their emotional midst. Though emotions rage at times, they never seemed to get to me and I regret that. I would like to have left the theater feeling something. In an otherwise perfect piece of theater, without that one element, there is a sense of disappointment at the end.
Rupak Ginn and Kristin Griffith; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
The Stone Witch plays on The Fitzpatrick Main Stage on Berkshire Theatre Group's Stockbridge Campus, 83 East Main Street, Stockbridge, MA through August 20. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line to www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.