Historical Whodunits, Dramas about Women Prevail in Summer Theater

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

Tod Randolph in Edith

When the curtains rise at summer theaters from coast to coast in the United States this month, audiences will be bombarded with two very different types of historical plays: murder stories out of the past, and plays about strong women, from 1950s princesses to 1970s nuns to 1917 First Ladies.

The murder plays, from Macbeth to Hound of the Baskervilles, take a look at the dark side of life. Rarely has a single summer seen so many of them in theaters. Let’s start with the murder mystery champion, English writer Agatha Christie. Her story Black Coffee has been turned into a stage play at the Alley Theater, in Houston, Texas, where it opens July 6 for a one-month run. Up in Boston, the Actor’s Repertory Theater has turned the movie The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a gritty 1970s tale of betrayal and homicide among ex-cons starring Robert Mitchum, into a murder mystery drama. It debuts in June. The Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts has a murder musical in Oliver! and a drama in The Puppetmaster of Lodz, about the persecution of the Jews in World War II. The Cape Playhouse, in Dennis, Massachusetts, is one of the several theaters in the U.S. staging Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring the dazzling detective Sherlock Holmes. It opens at the quaint seventy-year-old theater on June 11 and runs for a month. The Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, across the river from Washington, D.C., is staging The Hollow, a new version of the Washington Irving short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the story of the scary nineteenth-century "headless horseman." It premiers August 23. In San Diego, the Old Globe Theatre will be staging the Broadway hit musical The Scottsboro Boys, about rape and lynchings in the Jim Crow South. It'll open June 10.

In Shakespeare news, this year the Lincoln Center Festival will produce another version of Macbeth. This is one of many productions of Macbeth in New York this year, in addition to Sleep No More, a unique play set in an old New York hotel in which theatergoers walk through rooms and watch scenes from the drama take place. Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts is staging a version of King Lear, set in the waning days of tsarist Russia. It debuts in July. 

Plays about powerful women who succeeded in a man’s world throughout history are running throughout the country. Lenox's Shakespeare & Company festival is staging Cassandra Speaks, about Dorothy Thompson, a tough journalist who covered Germany in the 1930s, becoming one of the first American journalists booted out of Nazi Germany by Adolf Hitler. She married writer Sinclair Lewis, anchored a radio show, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1939. Several Broadway plays were based on her life. Sad to say, despite her former notoriety, Thompson is not a well-known figure today and this look into her life should be revealing. She was a gifted woman who not only gained fame, but did it in a field dominated by men in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The Berkshire Theater Festival, just fifteen minutes away from Lenox, will produce Edith, a new look at the wife of President Woodrow Wilson who, Washington gossips said, ran the country when her husband was laid low by a stroke towards the end of his presidency. Wilson was incapacitated while lobbying for the League of Nations. His wife Edith was very protective of Wilson and reluctant to let anyone strip him of his enormous power, despite his illness. Edith took over. She would not allow the vice president to assume the powers of the presidency and decided who would see Wilson in his bedroom and who would not, screened all of his phone calls and determined which letters and bills he would see. She had her supporters and her critics, all explored in the play.

Gallivanting royalty will take center stage when the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis produces Roman Holiday, a play based on the famous 1950s film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. In the play, Peck, a reporter in Rome, takes off for a 24-hour holiday with a disenchanted but determined princess. The play opens June 9 and runs through August 19.

One of the most intriguing stories about strong women will be told in the one-woman opera Émilie at the Lincoln Center Festival. It's the story of Émilie du Chatulet, a mid-eighteenth century French physicist and mathematician who was also the mistress of philosopher Voltaire. She reportedly helped to invent the term "derivative" in economics, a financial practice that helped bring about the current recession.

On the lighter side, Dennis’s Cape Playhouse will also produce Nunsense, the 1970s story about a group of nuns. Sister Act, another nun’s story, is enjoying a healthy run on Broadway now. Also in Massachusetts, the Cape Cod Repertory Theater is producing Funny Girl, the story of 1920s vaudeville star Fanny Brice and the subject of numerous plays and films over the years. Funny Girl opens in September. Two of theater's most venerable women take center stage in yet another production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Many of the summer festivals are loaded with history stories. The Lincoln Center Festival is jammed with stories, operas and ballets about the past. The festival will stage a trilogy of plays, DruidMurphy, by Tom Murphy, that tell the story of Irish immigration to America from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present and traces the migration of the Irish from famine-stricken Ireland to New York. That trilogy (you can see the three plays in one day or separately, on three days) will run alongside In Paris, starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, about a former Russian general in Paris in the 1930s. Running with them is Anton Chekhov’s nineteenth-century drama Uncle Vanya (the fourth Uncle Vanya in New York this season), starring Cate Blanchett, and the opera Émilie. Added to all of that is an appearance by the fabled Paris Opera House Ballet that will, among three offerings, stage the 171-year-old Giselle.

The Shakespeare and Company Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, has a long line of history plays, headed up by the Bard's The Tempest and the aforementioned King Lear. They will also stage Endurance, a unique play about the exploration of the North Pole at the turn of the twentieth century. Other plays will include Satchmo at the Waldorf, a new work that chronicles Louis Armstrong’s appearance at the New York hotel in the 1960s and his relationship with his white manager. The play, by Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout, also discusses views of the musician from both white and black audiences.

Down the road from Shakespeare and Company is the Berkshire troupe, which will also stage the musical A Chorus Line, a musical about the 1970s auditions for Herb Gardner’s A Thousand Clowns, in addition to Edith and Puppetmaster of Lodz.

The Spoleto Festival, in Charleston, S.C., is staging Hay Fever (through June 8) and The Animals and the Children Take to the Streets, a revival of a 1920s play (through June 3).

Barrington Stage, in Barrington, Massachusetts, will offer Fiddler on the Roof, the always popular musical about the troubled Tevye and the eviction of Jews from a Russian village in the early twentieth century; they will also stage Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. The Actors Repertory Theater in Cambridge will also present Pirates of Penzance. The Zachary Scott Theater in Austin, Texas, will produce Horton Foote’s drama Dividing the Estate and in Dallas the Dallas Theater Center will produce the timeless biblical musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. In addition to The Scottsboro Boys, the Old Globe in San Diego will stage As You Like It, Inherit the Wind, and the rather chilling Richard III. The John F. Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., will produce Memphis, the Tony Award-winning musical set in the late 1950s. It opens June 12 and runs through July 1.

Two California theaters will stage August Wilson’s The Jitney, the story of events at a gypsy cab company in Pittsburgh in 1977. The South Coast Repertory Theater in Costa Mesa, will run it from May 11 to June 10, and the Pasadena Playhouse will offer it from June 21 to July 15.

The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey will produce a number of history plays, too, in addition to their regular Shakespeare fare. This summer they are producing the 1700s show The Liar along with Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One, Comedy of Errors and Measure for Measure.

Somewhere this summer, pick your century, there is some play for historians of all kinds.

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