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THEATER REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company’s production of ‘A Tender Thing’ plays at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center through July 11

What "Romeu and Juliet" has always needed is a happy ending. Ben Power and Alan Paul have given us that, at least on the face of things.

A Tender Thing

Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield
Written by Ben Power, directed by Alan Paul

“Inside the bottom of our grief.”

Romeo and Juliet lived. They married, abandoned their warring families and had one of their own. Now, nearly 40 years later they live in an ocean-view house, quietly but passionately together. Their love has sustained them in their solitude. Their language, still Shakespeare’s words, is as expressive and angular as their minds. They touch one another physically and emotionally. They are Romeo, the lover, and Juliet, the mystic; they are eternal. Except. Except that Juliet is ill, dying, needy. Romeo is himself, and that is just not enough in this situation.

Candy Buckley. Photo by Ron Rader.

Juliet has cancer. It slowly erodes her body but never touches her heart. She remains the 13-year-old girl she was at the beginning. She loves without conditions. She loves with her entire self. Romeo loves as he must, with a combination of worship and lust, his heart as overflowing as his loins. He wants what he wants, and he wants her. From the start of the play until the end of the play, Juliet is his obsession. It is beautiful, intense, and exhausting.

Playwright Ben Power has used Shakespeare’s words from “Romeo and Juliet,” “Twelfth Night,” and the sonnets to create this more modern retelling of their love story. Every once in a while, a contemporary phrase would be welcome, but he never steps away from his source. He stays the course and drives through the history of the English language to sustain the mystery and the miracle of creation. And it is that beauty that challenges both the actors and us.

Candy Buckley is the fair Juliet. From her first gravel-voiced moments through her last, she depicts a woman whose intense gravitas is never frivolous but rather always serious. She uses every word she utters and brooks no resistance. Even when her language is light and lovely, she is clearly out to make a point, and make it she does.

Derek Smith. Photo by Ron Rader.

When I read about her doing this play, I thought “what odd casting,” but now that I have seen her do it, I can only admire Director Alan Paul for placing Juliet in such remarkable hands. She brings a great and honest beauty to the role. As her character’s illness proceeds, Buckley steps into it, moment for moment, making it almost too realistic to watch. Her use of support props is almost as sensitive as her line readings.

I recently lost my husband of 49 years, and watching the gradual progression of Buckley’s realistic Juliet was almost too much for me, so honest and so reminiscent was it. Shakespeare loved death scenes; he would have adored this one.

Derek Smith’s aging Romeo is half boy but three-quarters man. He is more than one person, conflicted and confused, questioning just about everything, refusing to accept the inevitable, seeing what he needs to see and ignoring the rest while still being helpful and kind and considerate of the Juliet he loves.

Smith’s use of this language is as natural as chewing gum might be, almost second nature. He rattles off words while his body expresses his feelings with even greater speed and passion. It is a performance like no other I can recall. How any Juliet—young or old, female or male—could resist him cannot be explained. I could watch him draw the curtains for hours on end.

Derek Smith and Candy Buckley. Photo by Ron Rader.

What “Romeu and Juliet” has always needed is a happy ending. Ben Power and Alan Paul have given us that, at least on the face of things. We need to remember that in the face of death and destruction of friends, children, family, there is still love, perhaps great love. To keep our world motivated. The author and director give us this before it is all done.

Marsha Ginsburg’s glorious set is perfection. Ricky Reynoso’s costumes perform psychological miracles. Robert Wierzel’s lighting design is very special indeed. Paul has coordinated the best possible presentation of this difficult but so worthwhile play.

“A Tender Thing” plays on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company’s Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, 36 Linden Street, Pittsifield, MA, through July 11. For information and tickets, call (413) 236-8888 or go to Barrington Stage’s website.

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