Northampton Center for the Arts presents ‘Our Town’

Last modified: Sunday, March 17, 2013

How to say goodbye?

That’s one of the many questions Penny Burke has grappled with as she makes plans to wrap up programming at the Northampton Center for the Arts, where she is the director. The center is coming to the end of a 30-year lease of the Sullivan Square Building and is in the process of searching for a new location.

In bidding farewell to the space, Burke says, she wanted to honor the sense of community that has developed over three decades as local artists of all stripes have shown artwork, and performed everything from dance to theater to circus acts. The result: A community production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Our Town,” which will be performed at the center Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Although numerous theatrical productions have been presented at the venue over the years, “Our Town” is the first play produced by the center itself during Burke’s tenure.

“We wanted to find a way to commemorate the time spent in our town — literally, our town of Northampton,” Burke said.

First performed in 1938, “Our Town” has become an American classic and is one of the world’s most-frequently performed plays, Burke said. The play depicts life in the rural community of “Grover’s Corners, N.H. and addresses the timeless theme of eternity within the fabric of daily life.

That primary message was critical at the time because it came out prior to World War II, when political troubles were escalating in Europe. It draws attention, Burke says, to the notion that everybody should learn to live in the moment rather than rushing through everyday life.

But there’s also has a dark undertone, adds Toby Bercovici, the play’s director.

“I think the script is saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we can slow down, really see each other, be honest with each other, appreciate things in a true deep way,’ ” Bercovici said. But with that, she adds, there can come sadness. “It’s like slowing things down to really appreciate the beauty and the sadness but we don’t do that, and then we die.”

Bercovici, 29, is a 2006 graduate of Smith College in Northampton, where she majored in theater. She also earned a graduate degree in directing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the artistic director of “The Tribe of Fools,” a fledgling theater company based in Northampton.

Burke chose Bercovici to lead the production after seeing a performance she directed last year of “King Lear.” Burke says she was drawn to the Northampton director’s professional approach, artistic integrity and the serious connection she has with her actors.

Engaging the audience

The stylized play, performed with a minimal set, removes the theatrical fourth wall, with the narrator (the Stage Manager) addressing the audience directly — guiding them through the lives of the residents of Grover’s Corners. As a way of further engaging the audience, Bercovici says, the play will be staged with viewers seated on three sides of the simple performance space.

“We are really not going in there to make any attempt to transform the space, Burke said. “We want to transform the people in the space.

The cast of 14 community actors is largely female, with women taking on traditionally male roles. According to Burke, the cast and crew, with the exception of Bercovici, a lighting manager and sound person are volunteering their services as the center winds down its programming on a shoestring budget.

Among the cast is Linda Putnam, who plays the role of the Stage Manager; Chris Rohmann, the theater critic for The Advocate who plays Doc Gibbs; and Moe McElligott, an improv comedian with the Ha-Ha Sisterhood who plays Mrs. Gibbs. Emily will be played by Alexis Reid, a young actor who recently moved to the area who has worked with Bercovici in the past, and Mrs. Soames will be portrayed by Peggy Gillespie, who is active in the local dance and theater community.

“She’s a character around town playing a character around town,” Burke said.

As the center celebrates its long place in our town, with its production of “Our Town,” Bercovici says, the audience can look forward to an exchange between the cast and themselves, because they are an integral part of the play.

“I just would hope that something real will happen during the night and that there is playfulness between the community for those two hours.”

Tickets cost $15; $10 for students and seniors. Advance reservations and information are available online at

The center will again produce Northampton’s First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve, which will be followed by a limited number of public and private events: Art exhibitions will end after January; some regular activities such as art classes will be held into March.

The final program will be on March 22, when classical guitarist Peter Blanchette presents his annual “Bach Birthday” show. After that, Burke and other staff will prepare for leaving Sullivan Square, as their lease will be up on June 30. The website includes a link to further information about the closing of the center.


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