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Players bring theatrical excellence to a rustic setting

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2006

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. -- In Thornton Wilder's 1938 play ``Our Town," a high school girl describes a letter received by a friend. It was addressed like this: ``Jane Crofut; The Crofut Farm; Grover's Corners; Sutton County; New Hampshire; United States of America; Continent of North America; Western Hemisphere; the Earth; the Solar System; the Universe; the Mind of God."

That perspective makes a small town like Peterborough, dubbed ``Grover's Corners" in the play, feel infinitesimally smaller. It was here, hunkered down at the MacDowell Colony, that Wilder wrote much of the play. After ``Our Town" premiered, to cool reviews, in Princeton, N.J., it made a long hit run in New York before the first regional production was staged in Peterborough in 1940. The company that produced it, now called the Peterborough Players, staged the play in an 18th-century barn, where the audience endured the performance on hard benches.

It was only seven years earlier, in 1933, that Edith Bond Stearns , a friend of the MacDowell Colony founders and a wealthy Bostonian who summered in Peterborough, had converted her barn into a rustic playhouse in hopes of nurturing new talent and fostering the development of high-quality professional theater. Ten seasons later, the Players had established the signature mix of classic and contemporary work that continues today.

Since then, the Players, now one of the oldest summer-stock theaters in the nation, have staged five to six plays every summer. That may not sound impressive unless you have had to do it. ``It means striking a set and mounting a new production within 48 hours every few weeks," says marketing director Jon L. Egging , one of the people who pitches in.

But the Players haven't sustained a faithful following merely with quantity; through generations of creative direction, they have managed to attract talented performers, both unknown and known. James Whitmore, Jean Stapleton, William Hurt, Richard Cox, Robert Morse, and Jack Weston began their careers here. Mary Beth Hurt, Susan Sarandon, Karl Malden, Sam Huntington, and Avery Brooks are among the other famous performers to have graced the Players' stage. Now in his 80s, Whitmore has returned to the Players for the past two seasons, with his son James Jr., a Hollywood director, sharing the stage in ``Tuesdays With Morrie" (2006) and ``Inherit the Wind" (2005).

Although a core of 10 to 12 professional actors have been returning regularly for more than 10 years, the Players aren't a full theatrical company -- that is, a group of performers who play the key roles in each production, Egging explains. Instead, artistic director Gus Kaikkonen hires as many other actors as needed for each play, recruiting some from professional ranks and auditioning interns and local amateur actors in Peterborough and at the New England Theatre Conference in Natick each spring. The latter draws about 1,000 people from all over the country, mostly students and new professionals.

``This is where we get our interns," says Egging, who started out as one himself and has become one of the regular returnees. The 15 to 20 interns, some technical, some performers, are ``the heart and soul of the theater," he says. ``They're here all summer, whereas the other actors are around for only five or six weeks. The company has a good reputation, so we get good people, and three or four interns return every year."

Interns get a workout in all aspects of professional theater, building sets, working lights, and juggling a host of other technical tasks for the Players. They also mount two productions for Second Company, which performs two concurrent children's plays each summer, and appear in supporting roles in the main-stage productions. Dating from 1996, Second Company grew out of Stearns's apprenticeship program established in the '30s.

The same reputation that draws interns has also attracted faithful audiences from all over the region to see such plays as this season's ``Tuesdays With Morrie," ``The Gin Game," ``Hobson's Choice," ``The Winter's Tale," ``Fallen Angels," and ``The Turn of the Screw," which will close the season Sunday . (Second Company concluded with ``The Secret Garden" on Aug. 19.) The Players make the theater available to the local Actors' Circle Theatre and the Peterborough Folk Music Society throughout the off-season.

``We're one of the few theaters that features a regular program of comedy and drama instead of relying largely on musicals, although we do put on one musical every season," Egging says. A list of some of the playwrights from past productions bears out his claim: Shaw, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, Wilder, Beckett, Williams, Miller, and Mamet, as well as premieres and recent works by contemporary playwrights.

The Players wrapped up a seven-month, $1.4 million renovation this spring, including a new, expanded stage equipped with a fly loft where scenery can be pulled up, a trap space under the stage, and an orchestra pit. New air conditioning and sprinkler systems also were installed. But for the audience, the best news may be that the padded folding chairs -- which succeeded the original benches -- have been replaced with ``real theater seats," says Egging. Three additional rows also bring the number of seats from 205 to 249. But throughout the renovations, Egging says, ``we tried to retain the feeling of this place -- rustic and intimate."

Not only audiences, but also performers, hold strong attachments to this theater in the woods. ``Many former performers and interns will come back here 10 or 15 years from now," Egging says, ``poke their heads in, and say, `I loved my time here.' "

Jane Roy Brown, a freelance writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at janeroybrown@verizon.net.

Peterborough Players
55 Hadley Road
Peterborough, N.H.
603-924-7585
www.peterboroughplayers.org
Directions: Peterborough is 72 miles or about 90 minutes from Boston. Take Route 2 west to Route 202 north into New Hampshire. In Peterborough, after the light, you will be on Grove Street. When it dead-ends, turn right onto Main Street, take the immediate left onto Summer Street, and go 3 miles on Summer/Middle Hancock Road. Turn right onto Hadley Road; the Players is at the end of the road.
Actors' Circle Theatre
603-924-3876
www.actorscircletheatre.org
Peterborough Folk Music Society
603-827-2905
www.acousticmusic.com/pfms

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