By Jarice Hanson
For the Valley Advocate

The stories that make up what we see in theater are just one aspect of what makes live entertainment so compelling, but the way those stories are told has much to do with whether the play continues to make you think even after the actors have taken their bows. One function of theater has always been to identify current themes that reflect social conditions, and this summer there are a bumper crop of productions that fit this model.

Many companies in our region are taking the approach of developing productions of what might be called “socially responsible themes.” Some of these shows have just closed, or will be closing soon, so in this edition of Theater Matters, I’ll be calling attention to some of the companies and the themes being staged this summer.

Environment and climate change

Ellen Augarten
The cast of “Moving Water.”

The very entertaining Serious Play Theatre Ensemble just concluded their ambitious performance of “Moving Water 2024” at the Northampton Center for the Arts, June 20-23. Serious Play’s mission is working “toward reshaping society’s conversation around prominent social issues through the art of ensemble theater.” A free Climate Change Community Forum was also sponsored so that interested audience members could learn more about the science and moral issues related to what we, as a society do, or not do, with the realities brought by climate change.

The multi-media treatment of environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change involved four years of working with actors and technicians to tell the story of water crisis through the eyes of Sergei, a building’s super (Kermit Dunkleberg), Luna, a Mexican oceanographic student (Stephanie Reyes) and Drew, the building manager (Marcus Nerverson)

The cast of this original piece is energetic, athletic and skilled. There is a charm about each of the actors that humanizes the characters to make the serious problem of water both an existential threat and a symbol of life. At the same time, their message is an important one, critical to contemporary life and our ability to survive what humans have wrought.

Directed by Sheryl Stoodley, Serious Play takes a theatrical approach known as Devised Theater, in which the actors, writers, and the entire creative team contribute to the creation of the piece. The team works through a series of improvisations and personal stories to consensually build the performance piece. The original script was penned by Eric Henry Sanders, and original music composed by Jonny Rogers is haunting and stimulating to the senses. Technical direction, video and set design is by Robin Doty. A version of “Moving Water” was performed in Northampton in 2021 and was performed at the Museum of Science Boston in 2022. The current version is beautifully executed and timely, and if you missed “Moving Water” this time, watch for more productions in the near future.

Silverthorne Theater’s first production of their ambitious summer season

C.S.E. Cooney
Liz Duffy Adams, playwright of “The Broken Machine.”

With the news that Silverthorne Theater has now positioned itself to planning a full six-play season, the company chose a fascinating treatment of climate change by local resident Liz Duffy Adams for its summer series. “The Broken Machine” was performed June 7-9 and 13-15. The award-winning playwright’s work is always fresh and innovative. If there is something that marks a Liz Duffy Adams play, I would say it is the author’s clever wordplay and the number of ways the actors entice the audience into the story. At the time of this writing, “The Broken Machine” was not yet available to review.

In this season of plays by women, Silverthorne’s next production will be “Bulrusher” by Eisa Davis: a lyrical play with music set in 1955 California, with themes of painful secrets, missing parents, and social isolation. “Bulrusher” will run from July 5-13. In this socially responsible play, audience members are asked to think about what makes a family, and what gifts each of us may contribute to others.

From August 2-10, Silverthorne will stage “Smart People” by Lydia R. Diamond, a play centered on a university professor teaching about race, and learning some important lessons in the process. Themes of race have long provided a context for contemporary moral decision-making, attitudes and beliefs.

And be sure to watch for…

Frank S. Aronson
The cast of “Pulling at the Roots.”

K and E Theater Group will celebrate their “Come Out With Pride” series with five performances of “Zanna Don’t!,” the clever off-Broadway cult hit set in a parallel universe where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuality is taboo. Running June 27-30 at the Northampton Center for the Arts, the musical is fun, thought-provoking, and raises the age-old question about love and being true to oneself.

Florence based Plays in Place creates plays in partnership with museums and historic sites. In 2023, the company was commissioned by Historic Northampton to write 3 plays set in Northampton. The result was the creation of “Circling Suspicion” by Talya Kingston, a play about a woman accused of witchcraft; “Rose” by Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed, about Jonathan Edwards and Rose, a woman enslaved by Edwards; and “The Optimist’s Razor” by Patrick Gabridge, about abolitionists David and Lydia Maria Child. When the production was mounted in 2023, it received rave reviews and audience calls for more.

This year the three plays are collectively called “Pulling at the Roots” and will be staged at the Shepherd Barn on the Historic Northampton grounds, June 19-30 and 26-29. Each play will be followed by a brief talk-back with the artists and a historian. Space is limited so be sure to call or check the website for tickets.

For the kids

Summer is a wonderful time to introduce children of all ages to the magic of live theater. This summer, the Majestic Theater in West Springfield will be presenting “Curious George and the Golden Meatball” and “The Secret Garden” in repertory from July 8-31.

Additionally, the Majestic Youth Theater Workshop will debut this summer with young performers working for two weeks to develop “Snowderella,” a kid-friendly script by Nate Eppler, to be presented July 5 and 6. Tickets for all performances can be purchased through the Majestic’s phone-based box office.

In memorium

Jon Crispin
The late Tom McCabe, one of the brightest lights of children’s theater in Massachusetts, who we lost on May 28. Here is is in a 2009 production of “Pinocchio” at Paint Box Theatre.

On May 28, we lost one of the brightest lights of children’s theater in Massachusetts. Tom McCabe was a master storyteller and advocate for children’s theater. He graced many stages with his innovative approach to involving children in the creative process of staging stories.

Among his many accomplishments, Tom received the New England Theater Conference’s Moss Hart Award for excellence in children’s theater twice. He was the inspiration and guiding hand of the annual Oz Parade, and he is most well known as the creator of PaintBoxTheatre, which used improvisation and imagination to engage the whole family in stories that were popular with children and adults alike. In 2002, McCabe represented Massachusetts in a solo performance at the Kennedy Center, prompting Channel 5 to call him “New England’s Pied Piper.”

Tom McCabe was a big man with an unforgettable laugh who understood joy, bringing people together, and the idea that kindness can be taught through the magic of theater. He will be missed.