by Paula Kaplan-Reiss
The Stones by Kit Brookman, in its American premiere at Great Barrington Public Theater, was first presented the summer of 2022 at the Edinburgh Festival. Director Michelle Joyner, intrigued by the provocative and compelling plot of this one-man show, elegantly directs Ryan Winkles as Nick, a teacher who gives up a conventional teaching job and takes on the role of live-in private tutor to two young children living in a huge mansion in an English village.
The play opens with a spare set, furnished with large grey trapezoid blocks, surrounded by a wide arc of grey stones. Set designer Dai Ban sees that no color, squares or rectangles are allowed. Performer, Wendy Welch, eerily walks with a pail collecting some of these stones. Initially, we wonder why.
Nick proceeds to tell a story of meeting up with a one-time male lover, Chris, at the theater, and with humor and pathos describes their awkward encounter. He longs to confess his history of leaving anonymous, quasi-threatening notes in Chris’s locker while in school. At the same time, Nick describes his experience as a live-in tutor and being confronted with stones that are mysteriously left at his cottage. Throughout the play, Welch dramatically leaves a stone in various places, scaring Nick who has no idea where they come from or what they mean.
Nick cannot explain his past note-leaving behavior for Chris, nor does he currently know what to make of the stones he receives. He gaslights and is gaslit. As audience members, we struggle to understand all of this.
Winkles delivers his lines beautifully, full of nuance, including his gestures and facial expressions, especially as he discusses his break-up with his current boyfriend and his fantasies about his past lover. He cares about his charges who are obsessed with making a boat with him (another trapezoid block) to save the arctic polar bears they learn are in danger from climate change. He, too, joins in their enthusiasm. But we later find the boat is also in jeopardy.
Joyner adds two talented musicians, Welch and Alexander Sovronsky to provide a soundscape for the play, not present in the version in Edinburgh. Sovronsky plays three different stringed instruments, while both sing, make sound effects, laugh and echo many of the lines in the play. The addition is unusual. While these performers add to the creepy theatrical atmosphere, I was often distracted by their presence as they are completely visible stage right. Drawn to focus on them made me miss parts of the central story. Some of the songs are familiar leaving me to wonder how I knew them and why they were used. Perhaps the soundscape might have been more effective off stage.
The lighting (Matthew E. Adelson) and visual projections are spot-on and are effective in setting an eerie mood. However, we are left with too many questions at the end of this play. As audience members, we turned to each other, wondering if we missed the point, the message, or what actually happened. Brookman writes wonderful monologues but, ultimately, confuses us. While some may appreciate creating their own interpretations, I do not want to work that hard after leaving the theater. Stones are dropped; stones are left. Who or what are The Stones and what do they mean?
The Stones by Kit Brookman, directed by Michelle Joyner, presented by Great Barrington Public Theater plays June 15-July 2, 2023, in the Liebowitz black box theater in the Daniel Arts Center at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. CAST: Ryan Winkles as Nick, performer/original music/music director Alexander Sovronsky, performer Wendy Welch. Set design by Bai Dan. Lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson. Sound/projection design by Jacob Fisch. Costume design by George Veale. Stage manager Kayleigh Cerqua. Assistant stage manager/wardrobe Nathaniel Bokaer. Assistant to the director Katherine Humes.
Performances Thurs.- Sat., 7:30pm, Sat. and Sun., 3pm, in the Liebowitz black box theater, Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230. More information can be found on the GBPT website and on Facebook. Tickets to performances are affordable to all, between $25 and $50, and are available on the website and by phone 413-372-1980, or GBPTboxoffice@gmail.com.