by Barbara Waldinger

A particular advantage of living in the Berkshires is the opportunity to witness gifted artists of all types creating the magic of live performance.  On September seventeenth, Donald Margulies, considered to be one of America’s foremost living playwrights, was in attendance at the sold-out opening of his newest play, Lunar Eclipse, at Shakespeare & Company’s Bernstein Theatre, along with director James Warwick, Artistic Director Allyn Burrows, and a perfect cast consisting of Karen Allen and Reed Birney (both consummate film, television and theatre actors).  

Margulies, whose plays include the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Dinner with Friends, Sight Unseen, Collected Stories (both Pulitzer nominees), and Time Stands Still (a Tony nominee,  produced during Shakespeare & Company’s 2019-20 season), surprised Warwick and Burrows by offering them his newest play, which had never been produced or published.  Early on, Margulies envisioned Reed Birney as the male lead but by the time he completed the play, Birney (who performed with his son Ephraim in Chester Bailey at Barrington Stage Company and the Irish Repertory Theatre), had decided to give up working in the theatre.  However, Birney quickly changed his mind when Margulies sent him a copy of Lunar Eclipse.  For the role of the female lead, Burrows recommended Karen Allen, a South County resident involved in film projects such as the Berkshire International Film Festival, and a Hollywood veteran of many films, including Animal House, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Starman.  Allen portrayed Rosalind in As You Like It at Shakespeare & Company in 1988, but had not performed onstage for the last ten years.  But, after reading the script, she too jumped at the chance to be part of this production, playing Em to Birney’s George.  These character names, which are never spoken onstage, represent Margulies’ homage to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play he teaches to his Yale students every year.

His play takes place “on a farm in the American mid-west, let’s say Kentucky” in the middle of a summer night as they experience a lunar eclipse, with each of its seven stages announced by an offstage recording.  Margulies uses this fictional eclipse—this “miracle in the sky”– as a catalyst for the two long-married characters, a couple in “late middle-age,” to reflect on their lives, which is what the playwright hopes the audience will do.  In an interview with AboutFACE Theatre Company, Margulies discussed some of the autobiographical elements in Lunar Eclipse:  in his late sixties, as Margulies was working on this play, written during the pandemic, he ruminated about his own life’s trajectory and that of his wife, a “Kentucky farm girl,” who experienced the fragility and capriciousness of farming, about getting back in touch with the celestial elements, about mortality and the questionable vitality of the planet.  For those who go to the theatre looking for action or adventure, this ninety-minute dialogue between two people on beach chairs looking at the moon may not be your cup of tea.  On the other hand, for those who appreciate a character-driven mood piece, rich with subtle discoveries along the way about what happens in a marriage —the tragedies, the guilt, the attempts to keep love alive—and the fear of aging, of loss, of death, this play offers untold rewards.

Despite the subject matter, there is humor in Lunar Eclipse, much of it based on the recognition of our own feelings expressed onstage.  For example, when Em decides to join George outdoors for the eclipse, she arrives more laden with provisions than Berkshire residents going to Tanglewood on a chilly night, insisting that he take one of the many blankets and sweaters that she has brought.  His reply, funny and so apt:  “Just ‘cause you’re cold, doesn’t mean I’m cold.  This may come as a shock to you:  even though we’ve been married forever, we’re two separate people.”  Or later after Em praises George for saying something kind, he replies:  “I’m not kind.  I’m your husband.”  

It is hard to believe that Birney and Allen have never worked together before, that the chemistry between them onstage developed in only a four week rehearsal period.  But these two masterful actors have spent a lifetime honing their craft and experiencing the highs and lows of being human.  In what looks like simple, underplayed performances, they have built complex, textured characters who, after drifting apart in the course of a nearly fifty-year marriage, have begun to find their way back together. Watch how Allen, who takes the initiative here, encourages him  to talk to her about what’s making him sad, soothing his fears, normalizing his memory lapses, cheerleading and mothering him, while Birney, gruff and unused to talking about feelings, accuses her of smiling all the time, questioning whether she is ever sad, not expecting the Pandora’s box he opened.  Look how vulnerable they are, as they coyly wonder why the other chose to marry them.  This is a delicate, sensitive interaction, as we watch them open up more and more to one another, seeking again the love they once had, which, as the playwright states, “was right there, all along,” like the planet Mars. What caused this night to be different? They can’t figure it out:  is it the moon, the bourbon (and hot chocolate) they drink, the terrible loss they suffered, or has Em finally overcome her fear of losing her husband by grabbing hold of him in order to keep him from slipping farther away?

Warwick discusses his production concept in an interview with Berkshire Magazine:  “It’s a rather minimalist approach to serve the story and its characters.  I wanted the shifts in the eclipse to be so subtle that the audience may not even notice the first transition or two.  Each eclipse stage has a slightly different tone and mood. . . I feel it’s a constantly evolving play.”  He found just the right production team to bring this concept to life: set designer John Musall creates a revolving stage that moves “almost imperceptibly,” lighting designer James McNamara captures the “celestial journey” of the moon’s eclipse, while sound designer Nathan Leigh not only provides the myriad sounds of the evening but the evocative music as well.

In the last scene, Margulies provides a coda, fifty years earlier, when the high-school age George first invites his school friend Em to his parents’ farm to watch a lunar eclipse.  The way these actors change from cynical, hardened adults to idealistic, enthusiastic kids, flirting as they watch, with no help from makeup or costumes, could break your heart.  

LUNAR ECLIPSE runs from September 15—October 22 at Shakespeare & Company’s Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For tickets call 413-637-3353 or online at  

Shakespeare & Company presents LUNAR ECLIPSE by Donald Margulies.  Director:  James Warwick.  Cast:  Karen Allen (Em) and Reed Birney (George).  Set designer:  John Musall; Lighting Designer: James McNamara; Costume Designer: Christina Beam; Sound Designer: Nathan Leigh.  Production Stage Manager:  Hope Rose Kelly.  

The performance runs one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission.

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