WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — It’s a Chamber of Commerce midsummer afternoon in Williamstown: blue skies, temperatures in the mid-80s and a light breeze is blowing across the Williams College campus.

In the area known as “Poker Flats,” the youngest members of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s company are putting the finishing touches Monday on WTF’s Free Theatre offering. The men sport cargo shorts and bare chests; the women wear shorts and T-shirts.

Call it a half-dressed rehearsal.

Come Wednesday evening, they will be full costumed in Victorian attire and ready to transport audiences to London’s 221B Baker Street, setting for the first scene of “The Valley of Fear,” a new adaptation of an Arthur Conan Doyle novella by WTF veteran Steve Lawson.

It is a none too subtle nod to the roots of the Free Theatre, which began 25 years ago … with a new adaptation of an Arthur Conan Doyle novella by WTF veteran Steve Lawson.

“This started when I met with (WTF Creative Director) Jenny [Gersten] last November,” Lawson said. “We had a bunch of ideas, and I realized this was going to be the 25th anniversary season. I’d been in at the beginning on ‘A Study in Scarlett.'”

So it seemed natural to honor that successful beginning to a summer tradition by revisiting Baker Street and its most famous residents: Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

“I was originally considering ‘The Sign of Four,’ which is one of the other novels,” Lawson said. “‘[The Hound of the] Baskervilles’ I knew was impossible because of the dog. How do you do the dog? And people will say, ‘That wasn’t a very good dog.’ So that was out of the picture.”

“The Sign of Four” was ruled out because, among other thing, it called for battle scenes that play well on the page but would be problematic on the outdoor stage at Poker Flats (near the varsity field house on the north side of campus).

“So we came back to this one, which I’d never actually read,” Lawson said. “And when I read it, I thought it was fascinating because in the first half Holmes and Watson solve the unsolvable case, and then we flash back and see where it all started 20 years ago in America. It’s totally different from the (short) stories, which are totally self-contained: The evidence comes, and someone says, ‘Oh, Mr. Holmes, please come help.’ And he solves it.”

Despite the unfamiliar structure of “Valley of Fear,” the novella does have the advantage of featuring “arguably the most popular fictional character ever created,” Lawson notes.

As a playwright, he has the advantage of working with dialogue crafted by Conan Doyle and a milieu familiar to audiences worldwide — even if the specific story is slightly more obscure.

“I like to think as a playwright that I’m starting with a couple of balls over the plate in my favor because it’s Conan Doyle,” Lawson said. “We sort of know what we’re getting here. I love Shakespeare, but, well, it’s going to be a challenge.”

“With this, people automatically bring such good will to the field. You’re comfortable because you know the parameters of what you’re going to get. You’re going to get the two guys, and you’re going to get the case. But because it’s the novel, it’s more complicated, so there’s more than just the case. It’s the whole backstory.”

And there is a back story to the Free Theatre as well.

That first free offering back in 1987 featured a relatively unknown Alec Baldwin as Holmes and a pre-“Wings” Tim Daly as Jefferson Hope. The next year, TV’s George Wendt starred as Squire Western in Lawson’s adaptation of “Tom Jones.”

Over the years, the Free Theatre has played different venues, including the Buxton School, the grounds of the former Sprague Electric mill (before Mass MoCA opened) and the WTF Main Stage, where the festival staged free musicals geared toward children on weekday mornings.

Last year, Gersten decided to move the Free Theatre back outdoors under the stars in her first year at the helm of WTF.

One thing that has not changed through the years is opportunity the Free Theatre affords to young performers. This year’s production features 15 WTF apprentices working alongside six non-Equity members of the company under the direction of Lila Neugebauer, who was herself an assistant director at last summer’s festival.

“The apprentices are anything but ‘crowd’ or ‘extras,'” Lawson said. “They all have parts, and some of them have very big parts. … I think they’re pleased about that, the fact that they’re not just in the background. They’re really working.

“Obviously, what apprentice wouldn’t want to part of a huge main stage show — even to be in the crowd. But here you really get to work. You get to act. And there’s singing. There’s group stuff. There’s a lot of drinking and lots of shooting. They do stay very busy.”

And it looks like they will be getting cooperation from Mother Nature, at least through the first few days of the run, which goes from July 11-14 and 17-20 with a 7 p.m. “curtain.”

“I can’t wait for an audience,” Lawson said with about 50 hours to go until Wednesday’s opening. “That’s what it needs right now. Lila and I can react just so much.”



As originally published in Berkshire Eagle

By Stephen Dravis