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Critic at Large

The Berkshires: where art and life go hand in hand

LENOX -- From the picturesque vistas to the slower pace of going about one's business, the Berkshires seem like one of those areas frozen in time: the kind of place where you can walk into the local bookstore and find out that one of the two men who work there is going to be performing with a nationally renowned theater company that night.

It sounds like something out of a Thornton Wilder play or a Norman Rockwell painting, especially when it turns out that George Bergen, who works in the Bookstore in Lenox, more than holds his own with the fine thespians of Shakespeare & Company in ''Ice Glen," a play by local writer Joan Ackermann.

Rockwell lived in Stockbridge, the next town over, and his spirit still hovers over the Berkshires, an area that beckons tourists longing for simpler times, when everyone in town knew everyone else and artists were revered.

The aptly named Bookstore -- when you're there, it seems like the only one worth going to -- is owned by Matthew Tannenbaum, whose good taste and even better sense of humor pervade the store. The first time I met him I was buying a book for a friend who loved Frank McCourt's ''Angela's Ashes," so I picked up a book by his brother Malachy and asked Tannenbaum if he knew anything about it.

''Yeah, it's terrible," he said, and put it back on the shelf; he sold me a different book about growing up Irish. Since I would often buy scripts of plays being produced in the area, it didn't take him long to figure out I was a theater critic, so he'd always ask what I was seeing.

''I'm going to 'Ice Glen' tonight," I told him recently, and he said, ''Oh, you'll see George." I figured he meant Bergen would be in the audience, but he shook his head. ''No, Tina's husband, Dennis, is out for a while, and he's going on for him."

Dennis is Dennis Krausnick, a former priest who went on to become an actor, adapt Edith Wharton stories for the stage, and marry Tina Packer, the larger-than-life founder and artistic director of the company. (He has since rejoined the cast.)

Packer is directing ''Ice Glen," which Ackermann wrote not only for the company but for its small, elegant Spring Lawn Theatre. Recent financial problems have forced the company to sell the mansion housing the theater as well as nearly half of its 63 acres.

''Ice Glen" is set in 1917 at a Berkshires home that, like this mansion, has seen better days. The recently widowed Dulce Bainbridge (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) is considering selling the house, though that's not known to the staff, including Sarah Harding (Kristin Wold), an unpublished poet. Peter Woodburn (Michael Hammond), an editor at The Atlantic Monthly in Boston, has arrived to persuade Sarah to publish her poems after Wharton -- who lived in the Berkshires at the turn of the century and figures into the play -- has sent him three she came across.

''Ice Glen" deals with a number of issues. Who owns art, the artist or the public? What is an artist's duty to the public? How are words used and abused, particularly by lovers? Ackermann never quite connects the dots thematically, and it's hard to imagine the play working in any other space than this one.

But it works here because it resonates on so many levels with both the area and the company. And then there's Bergen, who has acted elsewhere in the area, including in Ackermann's Mixed Company in Great Barrington, and has taken Shakespeare & Company's monthlong workshop, intensive training that focuses on developing a personal relationship with a play's text.

Bergen fits right in with S&C regulars Hammond, Wold, and Aspenlieder, who all do a fine job connecting to their counterparts from almost 100 years ago. There's much more than Bergen's presence and Wharton's spirit, though, that links ''Ice Glen" to the area. When Woodburn looks out the window from the salon and says of the Berkshires, ''The air out here is bracing, is it not? It puts one quite in a different mind," the audience shares the great view of the Stockbridge Bowl and understands exactly what he's talking about.

Woodburn has fallen in love with the Berkshires, much as many a Bostonian and New Yorker has since. As the pressures of modern life have mounted and love of art has been displaced by obsession with popular culture, the Berkshires have become a place to decompress and reconnect.

The irony is that people are now spending millions of dollars to reconnect with what society has abandoned in favor of malls and reality TV. ''People come into the store and say, 'We used to have a bookstore just like this. I wonder what happened to it,' " Tannenbaum noted. ''And I feel like saying, 'You chose convenience and discounts.' "

All the new money has driven real estate prices through the roof, so many in the southern Berkshires can't afford the taxes or can't resist taking their profits and moving elsewhere. That's what happens in ''Ice Glen" to Dulce, who not only needs the money but thinks country life dulls the intellect.

Shakespeare & Company took an economic gamble in purchasing its property just as the economy started to go south. It hoped to create an outdoor theater akin to the magical space at the Mount, Wharton's former mansion, where it once staged plays. But the upkeep on the new property proved more expensive than expected.

The company had to significantly downsize, which is part of the reason it sold the Spring Lawn Theatre. Under new ownership, the mansion will house a luxury hotel and restaurant. With the money from the sale, Shakespeare & Company hopes to build a flexible 200-seat theater on the remaining property.

Such a theater may allow the company to continue staging not only such new plays as ''Ice Glen" but the kind of dramas Krausnick has smartly fashioned from Wharton's work, and other plays about Berkshires residents such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

Or at least one hopes there'll be a place for such works. Even if they aren't the greatest plays in the world, or the most artful productions at Shakespeare & Company, they remind us of what's unique about the relationship between art and daily life in the Berkshires.

Ed Siegel can be reached at