Besides being the birthplace of summer stock theater, Massachusetts hosts what is arguably the country's richest concentration of progressive summer performance programs. Whether your summer preference is for cool mountain lakes or hot ocean beaches, either western or eastern Massachusetts are as rewarding as ever for theater buffs: In addition to the critically acclaimed stages in the Berkshire Mountains, Cape Cod has been undergoing a sort of renaissance, as a venue not just for refried Broadway hits but for experimental drama -- hearkening back to 1916, when Eugene O'Neil and the Provincetown Players revolutionized the American stage with the premiere of Bound East for Carddiff, at the Wharf Theatre.
The most plentiful, reliably excellent institutions are still those along Route 7 in the mountains of western Massachusetts, from Great Barrington to Williamstown. The ten-year-old Barrington Stage Company (tel. 413/528-8888; www.barringtonstageco.org) is farthest south, in Sheffield, near the Connecticut border -- about two hours by car from Manhattan and 2.5 hours from Boston. They're known for fostering new works, such as William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a Broadway hit that premiered at BSC last year. This summer's lineup includes intelligent staples such as The Importance of Being Earnest and Hair, as well as original works such as Elegies, another musical by Finn, who earned two Tony Awards for Falsettos. The website (under "In the Berkshires") includes a complete 2005 schedule, excellent driving directions, and links to nearby hotels and restaurants. The Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce (tel. 413/528-1510; www.southernberkshires.com) also lists accommodations online.
In Stockbridge, the 77-year-old Berkshire Theatre Festival (tel. 413/298-5576; www.berkshiretheatre.org) is running adventurous classics on its main stage, such as Peter Shaffer's Equus (July 15-23) and David Mamet's American Buffalo (July 28-August 13). The side stage features experimental work such as My Buddy Bill, by Emmy Award-winning writer Rick Cleveland, executive producer of Six Feet Under. (The comedy deals with Cleveland's encounters, as a writer for The West Wing, with former President Bill Clinton.) By car, Stockbridge is about 45 minutes from Hartford or Albany International Airports, 2.5 to 3 hours from New York City, and two hours from Boston. The Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce website (tel. 866/626-5327; www.stockbridgechamber.org) lists lodgings.
Originally founded on the grounds of Edith Wharton's former estate in Lenox, Shakespeare & Company (tel. 413/637-1199; www.shakespeare.org) primarily devotes itself to the works of the Bard and, to a much lesser degree, Dame Edith and other artists, including choreographers, musicians, and poets. The company's education program has received every award from the McArthur to the GE Fund, and includes among its alumni Anna Deavere Smith, Sigourney Weaver, Keanu Reeves, and Raquel Welch. This year's season includes The Taming of the Shrew and King John.
Lenox is about one hour and 15 minutes from Albany, and about three hours from New York City or Boston. The Lenox Chamber of Commerce (www.lenox.org) lists a range of lodgings in the area.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival (tel. 413/597-3400; www.wtfestival.org), near the Vermont border, is 45 minutes from Albany by car, three hours from Boston, and four hours from New York City. From mid-June to late August, WTF runs more than 200 classic and new works, which have featured performances by artists such as Lili Taylor and Gwyneth Paltrow, among others. Many plays move from WTF to Broadway and off-Broadway. This year's main stage productions include Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, Tom Stoppard's On the Razzle, and Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. New works include The Sugar Syndrome by Lucy Prebble and Create Fate by Etan Frankel. The Williamstown Chamber of Commerce website (tel. 800/214-3799; www.williamstownchamber.com) lists lodgings in the area. Berkshire Lodgings (tel. 888/298-4760; www.berkshirelodgings.com) is another exhaustive source for accommodations in western Massachusetts.
Regardless of where you stay, if you're in this part of the country during summer months, don't miss Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival (tel. 413/243-0745; www.jacobspillow.org), in Becket. This year's lineup features Savion Glover (June 21-26), Martha Graham Company (June 29-July 3), Garth Fagan (July 20-24), Mark Morris (July 26-31) and other shows through August 27, with free performances and talks, as well as paid mainstage performances.
Cape Cod is home to the country's oldest summer theater, the Cape Cod Playhouse, where Bette Davis made her stage debut, as did Gregory Peck, Lana Turner, Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, and Tallulah Bankhead. In recent years, however, the peninsula's offerings had been much more about entertainment than art until the advent of the risky, rigorous Cape Cod Theatre Project in Falmouth and Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater (known as WHAT).
In Falmouth -- where James Cagney, Orson Welles, and Jimmy Stewart once performed, during the town's heyday as a summertime Broadway outpost -- the Cape Cod Theatre Project (tel. 508/457-4242; www.capecodtheatreproject.org) introduces works-in-progress and performances by some of the country's most renowned and finest emerging artists, including Pulitzer Prize winners Paula Vogel and Langford Wilson, and Oscar Award-winning actress Anna Paquin. Originally staged at the Woods Hole marine biology center, CCTP now uses the stage at Falmouth Academy to encourage development of new works, which actors perform with scripts in hand, through the month of July. Woods Hole scientists still make up a good part of the audience, and their probing, after-performance questions have reportedly lent tremendous insight to many of the playwrights who come here to rough out new work.
This season's lineup includes Neil LaBute's premiere of a cycle of one-act plays called Autobahn (July 7-9) and Thanksgiving/Christmas, by emerging playwright Joe Hortua (July 28-30). See the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce website (tel. 800/526-8532; www.falmouthchamber.com) for lodgings. At the start of the Cape, Falmouth is about a 1-1/2-hour drive from Providence International Airport and a little longer from Boston, depending on traffic.
The WHAT (tel. 866/282-9428; www.what.org) has been widely credited for reinvigorating the Cape's tradition as a summer hub for New York drama professionals; in 2004, Boston magazine cited WHAT for producing the Best Theater in the region. WHAT's 2005 summer season includes Harold Pinter's The Lovers and the world premiere of Public Exposure, a political satire by Brandeis professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich.
WHAT is about 2-1/2 hours from Providence International Airport, and a little longer from Boston. See the website for driving directions to the theater and a complete schedule. The Wellfleet Chamber of Commerce website (tel. 508/349-2510; www.wellfleetchamber.com) lists lodgings.
All the venues mentioned have excellent websites with detailed information regarding schedules, prices, ticket purchases, directions, and nearby amenities.